Discovery of uranium traces unlikely to derail US-Iran talks, experts say

US, Iran signal openness to negotiations despite setbacks

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi listens as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the IAEA General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 21, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER)
IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi listens as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the IAEA General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 21, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER)
Iran is looking into the European Union’s invitation to hold “informal” discussions between the signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal and the United States, Tehran’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

“We are studying [the] proposal … and … consulting with our partners, including Russia and China, and will respond in the future,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told state TV, adding: “However, we believe a US return to the nuclear accord does not require a meeting and the only way for it is to lift the sanctions.”

A day earlier, the White House signaled it was also open to the EU’s invitation, but insisted it did not plan on making any concessions toward Iran in advance of the “diplomatic conversation.” Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained Washington does not “need additional administrative steps to participate” in the potential talks.

Iran has demanded the US be the first to return to the 2015 pact, after it unilaterally abandoned the deal in 2018 under former President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has said he will only re-enter the agreement after Iran reassumes all the commitments it has since broken, such as halting its upgraded uranium enrichment.

Washington has also intimated it will look to expand and extend the original agreement, which it hopes will include Tehran’s extensive missile program, its belligerent regional activities and the pact’s expiration date itself.

However, the European-mediated discussions, which would be the first such meeting between Iran and the US since Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, may be dead in the water, after it was revealed on Friday that the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog had discovered traces of uranium in two undeclared sites in Iran during its August inspections.

According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency scheduled to be released next week, the Islamic Republic failed to explain the existence of the banned material in two facilities not meant to house nuclear machinery. Tehran, meanwhile, claims the sites have been inactive for nearly 20 years.

Last week, Iran notified the UN it would not allow further snap inspections by the IAEA on its territory, violating yet another central clause of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, reached between Iran and world powers in 2015 and aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

“If others do not fulfill their obligations by February 21, the government is obliged to suspend the voluntary implementation” of the deal, a statement by Tehran read, noting that its steps were “reversible if the other party changes its path,” alluding to the United States.

Per recent legislation passed by its hard-line parliament, Iran’s government was forced to limit the sweeping – and surprise – inspections by the IAEA, and will now allow only planned visits to declared nuclear sites.

“The snap inspections issue makes it easier for them to break away, and it’s a clear violation of the agreement,” Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a 40-year veteran of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and the IAEA, told The Media Line.

“Everything the Iranians do adds a level of pressure. They’re playing this very wisely, advancing extremely slowly but advancing nonetheless.” 

While both sides want to reach an understanding, Esculai sees Iran as holding the better hand in the game.

“It’s almost a win-win situation for them, because either they remove the sanctions or advance toward a nuclear weapon,” the senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies said. 

“Their latest steps, even though they are measured and retractable, make it easier for them one day to break for a nuclear weapon, if they so decide. It shortens their time frame. On the other hand, if a miracle somehow happens and the US removes all sanctions, that’s also great for Iran.”

“The US has to do something, show some progress. But it’s clear Biden can’t afford to fully capitulate. He’s in a much more delicate situation,” Asculai noted.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US Middle East policy at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that “Biden has already gotten off on the wrong foot. You can’t show you want the agreement more than the other side; it automatically gives them the advantage.” 

“[Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said himself Iran is only a few months from breaking away [toward acquiring a nuclear weapon]. Israel is more optimistic about the timeframe, but the US just wants to send a message that negotiations must start soon. That gives the impression that you’re more enthusiastic than the other side. It’s going to be a major source of friction between Jerusalem and Washington.”

Gilboa, a former adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, identifies another problem with Washington’s opening stance.

“You can’t negotiate without the military option on the table. Right now, it’s clear the White House has no appetite for military action. They are repeating the same mistakes of the 2015 talks.”

A major actor in the game, Israel’s intelligence, military and diplomatic leadership will on Monday hold an emergency meeting ahead of potential US-Iran talks.

“Israel has only the diplomatic alternative,” Esculai insists. 

“There’s no point in dealing with the Russians and Chinese, but the British, French and Germans can be persuaded, even though their interests don’t necessarily align with Jerusalem’s. For Israelis, this is existential. For Europe, it’s mostly financial.”

Escuai believes diplomatic overtures in Washington may also be effective, unlike the last round in 2015.
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“We have to talk with them. We won’t reach the head-on confrontation we had with Obama. Biden is different, although his administration includes a lot of individuals that were there in the Obama years and were participants in the agreement’s drafting.”