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Iran will remove 27 cameras from nuclear sites, U.N. watchdog says

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shows a surveillance camera during a news conference about developments involving Iran. (Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The head of the United Nations atomic energy watchdog said Thursday that Iran is removing 27 cameras used by the agency to monitor the country’s nuclear sites, a move that he warned could deliver a “fatal blow” to the stalled international negotiations to restore a 2015 nuclear deal.

The removal of the cameras followed the passage of a resolution Wednesday by the watchdog’s board censuring Iran for not cooperating with an investigation into uranium traces found at three undeclared nuclear sites. Only Russia and China voted against the resolution.

Unresolved questions about the sites have long been a source of contention between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, but the board had repeatedly deferred action on them while the broader negotiations were progressing.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi dismissed the resolution, saying that “Iran will not retreat one iota from its positions” and its nuclear rights. “How many times do you want to test the Iranian nation … do you think that by issuing resolutions we will retreat?” he said during a visit to Shahrekord in the west-central part of the country, according to Iran’s Mehr News Agency.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was unfortunate that “Iran’s initial response to the Board’s action has not been to address the lack of cooperation and transparency” that prompted it “but instead to threaten further nuclear provocations and further reductions of transparency.” Such steps, Blinken said, were “counterproductive” and would further complicate the negotiations.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, said during a news conference in Vienna that Iran’s removal of the cameras “poses a serious challenge to our ability to continue working there and to confirm the correctness of Iran’s declaration” of the full range of its previous nuclear activities.

Experts urge return to Iran nuclear deal as prospects dim

The 2015 deal between Iran and world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, sharply limited the country’s ability to produce and retain the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and subsequently embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, reimposing the lifted sanctions and adding more than 1,500 others.

Iran, in response, has increased the quality and quantity of its enriched-uranium production, far beyond the limits laid out under the nuclear deal.

The Biden administration has been indirectly negotiating with Iran to revive the pact, but talks were suspended in March, and U.S. officials have since voiced increasing pessimism that the deal can be restored. The impasse has escalated tensions in the Middle East, including between Iran and Israel, which has long opposed the agreement and has carried out attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Biden envoy makes the case for Iran nuclear deal as prospects fade

With the fate of the deal dominating discussions in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to the United Arab Emirates on a surprise visit Thursday for talks that his office said were focused on “various regional issues.” In comments he made before departing, Bennett commended the IAEA board for its rebuke of Iran, calling it “a decision which clearly states that Iran is continuing to play games and is continuing to conceal and hide.”

Israel maintains its own unacknowledged nuclear weapons arsenal. Iran has insisted that it has no intention of building a bomb and that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

In April, a group of 40 former government officials and nonproliferation experts urged President Biden to complete negotiations to restore the 2015 deal, warning that Iran was a week or a two away from producing enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb. On Monday, Grossi echoed the warning, saying Iran was “very, very close” to having a sufficient quantity of nuclear material for the manufacture of a weapon, which was not the same, he added, as “having a bomb.”

But the threshold — or a “significant quantity,” in the IAEA’s terminology — was “not a banality, it’s a very, very important thing,” he said.

The Biden administration’s attempts to revive the nuclear pact have faced significant resistance from Congress, including from Democrats. In April, a bipartisan supermajority of the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution insisting that there be no delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s strongest military force, which the Trump administration designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2019.

Although negotiators say they have resolved most outstanding nuclear-related issues, Iran has demanded that the United States lift the designation as a condition for reestablishing the JCPOA.

“We are in a very tense situation,” Grossi said Thursday, describing efforts to revive the agreement as being at a “low ebb.” “Now we are adding this to the picture,” he said, referring to Iran’s removal of the cameras. “It’s not one of those good days. It’s not.”

Forty or so cameras monitoring Iran’s atomic program remained, Grossi said. But in about three to four weeks, he said, the removal of the other cameras would leave the IAEA unable to maintain “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s nuclear activities.

“Iran has a way out of the nuclear crisis it has created,” Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, wrote in a message on Twitter on Thursday. “Cooperate with the IAEA to resolve outstanding safeguards issue & agree to return to the JCPOA, thereby addressing urgent international nonproliferation concerns & achieving U.S. sanctions lifting. The choice is theirs.”

Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.