Iran Curbs Nuclear Inspectors, but Appears to Leave Space for a Deal

Iran appears to have partly lifted its threat to sharply limit international inspections of its nuclear facilities starting on Tuesday, giving Western nations three months to see if the beginnings of a new diplomatic initiative with the United States and Europe will restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

After a weekend trip to Tehran, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Sunday that his inspectors would have “less access” as of Tuesday, but that they could still monitor the key production sites where Iran has declared that it is making nuclear material. He did not describe what form those new limits would take, but he said there would be a three-month hiatus on some of Iran’s new restrictions under a “technical annex” that was not made public.

At the same time, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that under a law passed by the country’s Parliament, Tehran would no longer abide by an agreement with the nuclear agency that gives the inspectors the right to demand access to any site where they suspect nuclear activity may have taken place. He also said inspectors would be blocked from obtaining footage from security cameras that keep some of the sites under constant surveillance.

The vague announcement appeared to be part of the maneuvering in Iran over how to respond to an offer from the Biden administration to resume diplomatic contact over restoring the deal that President Donald J. Trump abandoned nearly three years ago. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken offered to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years.

“Iran has not yet responded,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But what’s happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court.”

Iran has steadily tried to raise pressure on Washington to lift sanctions, with step-by-step increases in the amount of nuclear fuel it is producing and announcements that it is beginning to enrich uranium at higher levels, closer to bomb-grade material. Threatening to restrict inspectors has been part of that effort.

But now the Iranians are finding themselves backed into a corner of their own making: With a presidential election in four months, no one wants to appear to be weak in the face of international pressure.

Iranian leaders also recognize that Mr. Biden’s election gives them their best chance since 2018 to have sanctions lifted — and international oil sales flowing. That will require restoring the production limits mandated in the 2015 deal. The accord also requires Iran to submit to the snap inspections of undeclared sites under what is called the Additional Protocol, the rules that most International Atomic Energy Agency members adhere to in allowing broader rights for the inspectors.

Both Mr. Grossi and White House officials appeared eager to avoid any suggestion that the limits on inspectors was creating a crisis such as the kind that the Clinton administration faced in 1994, when North Korea expelled the agency’s inspectors and raced for a bomb. In this case, the inspectors will continue their work in Iran, even if their vision into the production of nuclear fuel and their ability to trace past nuclear activity are restricted.

“Grossi mitigated some damage,” Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been a major critic of the Iran deal, said on Sunday. But she added that “reduced monitoring in any form is extremely problematic due to the major nuclear advancements Iran has been undertaking,” especially after the agency began to raise questions about past nuclear activity at sites where it had found traces of radioactive material.

“The I.A.E.A. needs to publish the technical agreement and explain exactly how monitoring has been reduced so the international community can assess the severity of Iran’s step,” Ms. Stricker said.

Henry Rome, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, said the announcement on Sunday “presents an opening, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” noting that the country continued to ramp up its uranium enrichment and test new, more advanced centrifuges to produce the fuel.

The announcement that Iran had reached some sort of an accommodation with Mr. Grossi that could buy time for diplomacy prompted reactions from all factions in Iran. And the absence of details from the country’s atomic energy agency and from the international nuclear agency gave material to both those who wanted to restore the deal and those who thought it was far too restrictive on Iran’s abilities.

Conservative commentators took to social media to criticize the government for going around the law passed by Parliament in January that mandates limiting access for inspectors.

“Skirting the law?” Seyed Nezameddin Mousavi, a conservative lawmaker, tweeted on Sunday, suggesting that the government was trying to route around Parliament’s actions. “It looks my anxiety was justified.”

Supporters of diplomacy praised the government for thinking creatively about how to acknowledge the legal requirement without removing inspectors. Some suggested that the compromise involved Iran’s agreement to preserve the footage recorded by security cameras that monitor fuel production but not hand them to inspectors until the 2015 deal is restored.

“The Iranians have agreed to more than meets the eyes at this stage, but because if the I.A.E.A. is to be fully satisfied, there needs to be continuity of knowledge,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group. “It has basically deferred the crisis.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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