UN atomic agency head to visit Iran as nuke talks uncertain

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, left, speaks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department in Washington, ahead of a meeting. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP) (Mandel Ngan, AFP or licensors)

WASHINGTON – The head of the U.N.’s atomic watchdog plans to visit Iran before the end of next month amid questions about whether Iran will return to negotiations aimed at reviving the languishing 2015 nuclear deal.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said Tuesday he intends to visit Tehran “soon” to discuss and hopefully resolve specific concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is in violation of several aspects of the 2015 deal that the IAEA is charged with monitoring and has suspended some elements of other cooperation with the watchdog.

On a visit to Washington, Grossi told reporters that he expects to go to Iran before the next meeting of the IAEA board of governors in late November. Some countries are pushing for the board to condemn Iran's nuclear activity, including violations of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.

Grossi, who met on Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, would not predict whether the IAEA board would take such action, saying it will likely depend on what Iran does in the meantime.

“I think it will all depend on what happens from now to the third week of November. So many things will happen,” Grossi said, referring to his upcoming visit and the potential for a resumption in the nuclear talks, which have been stalled since June.

Grossi’s visit to Tehran has not yet been scheduled but his comments came as world powers are stepping up pressure on Iran to return to talks intended to bring both Iran and the United States back into compliance with the deal.

Since former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal and began a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by reimposing severe sanctions, Tehran has been blowing through limits on uranium enrichment and the use of advanced centrifuges. In addition, IAEA surveillance cameras at at least one sensitive nuclear site have been dismantled, destroyed or damaged.

After Grossi's last visit to Tehran in September, Iran had agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to install new memory cards in the cameras in question but the method and timing of the move have yet to be settled. At the time, Grossi called the agreement a “stopgap” measure that must be enhanced. The IAEA has said its activities have been “seriously undermined” since February by Iran’s refusal to let inspectors access their monitoring equipment.

Iran's new hardline government led by President Ebrahim Raisi, which took power in August, has hinted it will return to the nuclear talks in Vienna but has balked at setting a date. In the meantime it has called for an interim meeting with the European Union and the other remaining parties to the deal in Brussels before it commits.

Last week, the United States and its closest partners stepped up pressure on Iran to return to the Vienna talks, warning that it will face greater international isolation, new economic penalties and possibly military action if it does not.

In a series of high-level diplomatic meetings, U.S., European, Israeli and Arab officials agreed on the need to make clear to Iran that its continued resistance to rejoining the talks in Vienna will not be ignored or left unpunished.

The consensus comes amid growing concerns that Tehran is not serious about returning to the negotiations. It also comes as the Biden administration, which had made rejoining the accord a priority in its first months in office, and others become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for such negotiations even if they do resume.