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Iran deal with U.N. nuclear inspectors buys time for diplomacy as Biden pursues negotiations

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi addresses the media Sunday in Vienna upon his arrival from Tehran. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
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ISTANBUL — An agreement announced late Sunday that would allow the U.N. nuclear watchdog to continue some monitoring of Iran's atomic program has momentarily eased a standoff between Tehran and Western nations and may provide a narrow opening for diplomacy as the Biden administration attempts to restart negotiations with Iran.

But a vote by Iran’s parliament Monday condemning the agreement served as a reminder of domestic head winds, in Tehran and Washington, that could hinder a speedy return to the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers.

Iran had threatened to severely limit access by inspectors beginning Tuesday if the United States did not lift sanctions against Tehran. Under vague terms of the deal announced Sunday, Iran would still end implementation of what is known as the Additional Protocol, which enforces monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but would continue to allow what Rafael Grossi, the agency’s head, called “necessary monitoring and verification” of Iran’s nuclear program.

“There is less access — let’s face it,” Grossi told reporters in Vienna after a two-day trip to Iran. But he said he hoped the agreement, which would last three months, “has been able to stabilize a situation which was very unstable. I think this technical understanding does it so that other political consultations at other levels can take place.”

President Biden took initial steps toward restoring the Iranian nuclear deal last week, saying that the United States would be willing to attend a meeting with Tehran and other global powers that signed the 2015 pact.

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed heavy sanctions as part of a strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. Tehran responded by enriching uranium at higher levels than allowed in the deal, raising fears among Western powers that Tehran was inching closer to accumulating enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it decided to build one. Iran has repeatedly said its nuclear program is intended for peaceful ­energy-generating purposes.

The thicket of sanctions and Iran’s escalating, retaliatory measures were just some of the obstacles preventing a prompt restoration of the nuclear deal, aimed at restricting Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Even so, the agreement announced Sunday was “better than most people had hoped for” and “a major diplomatic win by the IAEA, as well as Iran, to preserve the diplomatic space in the coming weeks and months,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in an interview with state-owned PressTV on Sunday, before the IAEA announcement, that the nuclear watchdog would no longer have immediate access to footage from cameras monitoring Iran’s nuclear sites. Apart from that, few details were released about what the new inspection regime would look like.

On CBS’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, was asked whether Tehran had responded to the U.S. offer of a meeting and whether Iran’s decision to restrict video footage would affect that invitation. He replied that the offer “still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it.” Iran had not responded, he added.

Biden was “prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program,” Sullivan said, adding: “It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court.”

Even as Biden tries to restore the nuclear pact, he faces pressure from opponents of the original deal, as well as Arab allies, to push for tougher terms intended in part to penalize Iran for its aggressive military policies in the Middle East.

Iran’s leadership is also facing domestic resistance as factions across the political spectrum, stung by the Trump era, remain wary of any pledges by the United States. On Monday, the parliament, which voted last year to suspend “snap inspections” by the U.N. inspectors beginning on Feb. 23, condemned the agreement with the IAEA as unlawful and called for its annulment.

Iran’s parliament speaker, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, said President Hassan Rouhani, along with other unnamed “violators and dissenters,” would be referred to Iran’s judiciary.

Geranmayeh said that “there is of course going to be a domestic backlash about this both in Tehran and Washington, frankly — this is nothing new when it comes to anything to do with the nuclear deal.” But she said Iran’s agreement with the IAEA “would not have been made without higher approval at the level of the Supreme National Security Council,” a body made up of military and political leaders reflecting the preferences of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

Converting a diplomatic opening into progress toward a deal remains daunting.

A flurry of recent moves by the Biden White House, including the easing of travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats, was intended to signal to Tehran that the United States was serious about rejoining the nuclear deal. But they “fell short” of the tangible economic relief measures that Iran’s government was hoping for, Geranmayeh said.

For now, Iran may be willing to accept something less than full sanctions relief as a starting basis for technical talks — such as the U.S. encouraging allies like South Korea to release frozen Iranian funds to use for humanitarian purposes, she said.

Such a gesture would have to be made “before or imminently after” Iran accepted an invitation for a meeting with the United States and other global powers to discuss a return to the nuclear deal, Geranmayeh added.