Britain, France and Germany have scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the U.N. nuclear watchdog to criticise Iran for reducing cooperation with its inspectors, in a bid to avoid escalation and make room for diplomacy, diplomats said on Thursday.
Tehran and Washington have emerged from U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to wreck Iran’s nuclear deal locked in a standoff over who should move first to save it. Tehran has added to its breaches of the deal’s atomic restrictions in protest at U.S. sanctions re-imposed when Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018.
The European powers, all parties to the 2015 deal, have been lobbying for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors to adopt a resolution at its quarterly meeting this week expressing concern at Iran’s latest breaches, including ending the basis for snap IAEA inspections.
The resolution also called on Iran to answer the IAEA’s questions on the origin of uranium particles recently found at several undeclared and apparently old sites. Just as time for a resolution was running out, the IAEA announced a new diplomatic push to get answers from Iran.
“We are trying to sit down around the table and see if we can resolve this once and for all,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told a news conference called at short notice, outlining a process that will start next month.
“We are going to be starting this process of focused analysis of the situation with a technical meeting which will take place in Iran at the beginning of April which I hope will be followed by other technical or political meetings.”
That push prompted the so-called E3 to drop their planned resolution, even though there is no sign as yet of Iran relenting on its breaches of the deal.
A French diplomatic source told reporters the resolution was put on hold because the E3 believed they had won concessions allowing Grossi to work on the outstanding issues and because it would have harmed the prospects of a meeting between Iran, the United States and other parties to the deal.
“If we had gone through with the vote (on a resolution) it would have made it more difficult to quickly start this meeting,” the source told reporters.
Iran had bristled at the prospect of the resolution, threatening to end a recent agreement with the IAEA that limits the impact of its latest breaches, enabling monitoring of its facilities to continue almost as before for up to three months.
“Cooler heads are prevailing,” said one diplomat from a country on the board that had been sceptical about a resolution.
TALKING PAST EACH OTHER
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the move kept diplomatic efforts alive.
“Today’s development can preserve the path of diplomacy that was created by Iran and the IAEA and pave the way for returning to full compliance by all parties to the JCPOA”, Iranian state media quoted him as saying, referring to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
While Grossi said he hoped to report progress to the next IAEA board meeting in June, the French source said the resolution could be revived even before then if there were problems between the IAEA and Iran.
Grossi said he was seeking to end a process of “talking past each other” with Iran that has failed to yield credible answers.
U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.
“Either you continue with this merry-go-round that can last a long time or you try something else,” Grossi said. “I felt that we needed to try to discuss this in a different way.”
In response to these moves Iran has indicated its willingness to pursue informal talks with world powers and the United States, two European sources said on Thursday after European powers scrapped plans to criticise Tehran at the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Iran has so far refused to take part in a meeting brokered by the European Union between world powers and the United States on reviving its 2015 nuclear deal.
“Things are moving in the right direction and we have had positive signals this week and especially in last few days,” a French diplomatic source said.
The source added the objective was to get everyone around the table before the start of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on March 20, when Iran slows down administratively.
He added that the window would also narrow from mid-April when Iran’s presidential election campaign kicks in.
“We are putting all our efforts so that this (meeting) can take place in the days or coming weeks,” the source said.
A second European source also said there had been positive signals from the Iranian side.
Diplomats said the obstacle for talks was that Iran was setting preconditions for attending to ensure that there would be a pathway to sanctions relief after the meeting, something the U.S. could not accept.
“It’s not a matter of giving an assurance of something that we’d do. It’s sitting down and making sure that both sides do – as a first step, as a second step, whatever it is – that both sides are taking positive steps,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“We can’t tell them in advance what we’re going to do if we don’t know what they are going to do.”
An Iranian official declined to comment.
“Internal Iranian politics is causing constraints for the Iranian government which does not want to be at the same table as the Americans for the first time in years without being sure that it would lead at the end of this meeting to an effective process to lift sanctions,” said the French diplomatic source.
Iran’s nuclear policy is decided by the country’s top authority, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president or the government.
Britain, France and Germany decided to pause the submission of a resolution critical of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday to not harm the prospects for diplomacy and after what they said were concessions gained from Iran to deal with outstanding nuclear.