Iran blows its threat against IAEA with empty gesture - analysis

Had the Islamic Republic followed through on throwing out the nuclear inspectors, Israel, the US and the world would truly have needed to start considering the military option.

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 desperate for a deal to end the sanctions against it.
Its backpedaling on Monday from its threat to kick out all of the IAEA nuclear inspectors was the latest and most important withdrawal of its campaign to pressure the US President Joe Biden’s administration.
Had the Islamic Republic followed through on throwing out the nuclear inspectors around February 21, as required by legislation passed by its own parliament in December, Israel, the US and the world would truly have needed to start considering the military option.
Without inspectors to keep an eye on the quality and pace of Iran’s uranium enrichment, there would be no way to know if it was trying to break out to a nuclear weapon.
Instead, Tehran announced with great fanfare it would merely end ad hoc inspections by the IAEA beyond those at the main standard sites that are being and will continue to be constantly monitored.
But this is a meaningless gesture.
Iran has never allowed effective ad hoc inspections.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, commonly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a complex process of a minimum of several weeks was necessary before IAEA inspectors could get access to sites beyond standard key ones such as Natanz and Fordow that it monitors.
In practice, the delay and obstacles put up against ad hoc inspections by IAEA inspectors were far more than a number of weeks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed the world about the illicit Iranian nuclear activities at Shirobad in April 2018 and at Turquzabad in September 2018.
It was not until April 2019 that the ayatollahs allowed inspectors to visit Turquzabad.
The IAEA then sat on its own findings or failed to seriously pressure Iran to clarify the nature of its illicit activities until late 2019 and early 2020.
The Islamic Republic continued to ignore IAEA requests to visit additional sites and clarify issues related to Turquzabad until August 2020.
Only after IAEA Director Rafael Grossi convinced the IAEA Board of Governors to publicly declare Tehran in noncompliance and threatened further measures did the ayatollahs grant access and visitation rights.
There is significant suspicion that Iran had sanitized some of the sites by the time it let inspectors visit.
So when the Islamic Republic says it will not allow ad hoc visits going forward, it is “taking away” something it has never allowed, for all intents and purposes.
In fact, one of the holes in the JCPOA to which critics objected from the start was that there was no “anytime anywhere” surprise inspection power for the IAEA, as had been granted in the case of Iraq in the past.
This is not the first time the Islamic Republic has abandoned a redline since Biden’s election.
While the end game is far from clear, and the expectation is that the Biden administration will eventually go for rejoining the 2015 deal and lifting sanctions, Biden’s team has so far successfully kept Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a distance.
During a February 1 interview with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif backed off several previous redlines for nuclear negotiations with the US.
After demanding that the US first return to the nuclear deal, end sanctions and pay the Islamic Republic compensation for sanctions before he would commit to ending nuclear violations, Zarif made it clear that he would drop that requirement.
Zarif discussed the 2015 nuclear deal coordinator advertising a sequencing of reciprocal moves by both sides to return to compliance over time.
Maybe even more significantly, Zarif suggested for the second time that Tehran would be open to withdraw its involvement from Yemen in exchange for an end to Saudi Arabian and US involvement there.
Before Biden took office, Tehran made threats about a major escalation if there was no deal by February 2.
February 2 is long gone.
The real intermediate deadline by which Tehran hopes it can at least get movement by the US in its direction is the Iranian elections in June.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cannot run again due to term limits. But his pragmatic camp hopes they can show some sign of progress with the US that will help them maintain the presidency in their unending conflict with hard-liners who oppose any negotiation with the West.
None of this means that the story will end well, nor can the possibility of Iran concealing covert nuclear moves from the IAEA be discounted.
But both the Mossad’s multiple massive penetrations of Iran since stealing its nuclear archives in 2018, which included a map of many previously unknown nuclear sites, and the Islamic Republic’s publicizing so many violations, suggest any current covert program is limited.
The ultimate question remains for how long and for what concessions will the Biden administration hold out before rejoining the deal.