Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation Mohammad Eslami (r) and Grossi during a press conference in Tehran on 4 March (photo: AFP)
This week the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi left Tehran on a positive note regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. Over two days meetings with Iranian officials that culminated with an audience with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Grossi received “sweeping assurances” of full cooperation on safeguards from the Iranians.
Iran is supposed to provide access to information, locations and people, Grossi told a news conference at Vienna Airport soon after returning from Tehran. By the end of his visit, the joint statement said, “Iran expressed its readiness to... provide further information and access to address the outstanding safeguards issues.” Iran would also allow the re-installation of extra monitoring equipment that had been put in place under the 2015 nuclear deal, but then removed last year as the deal unravelled in the wake of the US withdrawal under then president Donald Trump in 2018 .
Yet, it is not clear if the IAEA accepted the Iranian explanation for traces of uranium enriched to 84 per cent – a level close to weapons grade fissile material. A quarterly meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors this week will decide on the matter. A confidential IAEA report to member states seen by Reuters, Grossi said, “looks forward to... prompt and full implementation of the joint statement”. Western powers were expected to push for another resolution in the Board of Governors’ meeting, ordering Iran to cooperate.
European signatories to the 2015 deal – Germany, France and the UK – want to take the matter to the UN Security Council to further censure Iran, which the Israelis have been pushing for. But according to an exclusive report in the The Wall Street Journal this week, the US administration is not in favour of the kind of public rebuke of Iran that the Europeans and Israelis would like.
This news did not receive the warmest of welcomes in Israel, which has been campaigning for more American and European pressure on Iran – probably as a pretext to a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear installations. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin toured the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Though tension in the Occupied Palestinian Territories might be the headline of the visit, Iran was still high on the agenda.
So far, the Biden administration is not keen on Israel’s desire for escalation against Iran to the point of war. But, while the effort to rejoin the nuclear deal remains frozen now, Washington might see the Israelis’ “calculated” escalation as a bargaining chip to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and improve provisions for a renewed deal.
European and American think tanks have been cautioning against that US approach. At the end of last month Foreign Affairs published a lengthy analysis of the dangers of American tolerance to Israeli escalation towards Iran concluding, “the bottom line is that Washington should not put too much faith in its ability to calibrate the pressure to just the right level. Military escalation is containable until it is not, and the time horizon for conflict can be longer and more painful than countries anticipate.”
Two senior researchers at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) wrote this week in Foreign Policy magazine warning that too little is being done to avert the possibility of war with Iran. They summed up the situation: “Military confrontation would be catastrophic. It must be averted before it is too late; war would have significant and counterproductive consequences for the West, Israel, Iran’s neighbours, and the Iranian people.”
Arguably even the Gulf countries are not on the same page when it comes to war or negotiations with Iran. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be content with any escalation with Iran while Qatar and Oman are for negotiations, with reports noting Doha and Muscat are already playing a behind-the-scenes role in reviving Iranian-American contacts.
In fact, some in the region have been expecting the recent escalation in political manoeuvring ahead of a new round of negotiations between Iran and The West. Last month, Saudi political commentator Abdul- Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly that this is “a known Iranian tactic: they keep blackmailing the world and at the eleventh hour they compromise and go for a deal.” He added then: “I still think, as long as the Democrats are in the White House, there will be a deal with Iran. It is essentially just political manoeuvring.”
The outcome of the IAEA head’s visit to Tehran and the promised full cooperation might be a last attempt to return to negotiations to revive the nuclear deal. Though Israel and many in the West are keen to keep the issue of Iran’s nuclear violations separate from the deal negotiations, the main concerned parties, Tehran and Washington, are using that IAEA dispute to push for returning to dialogue.
Though some are anxious enough to compare the latest inspectors’ dispute to the one that preceded the war on Iraq in 2003, the situation seems totally different. Iran looks like its resetting its position on nuclear cooperation with the UN watchdog. Still, nothing can be ruled out. And if hardliners succeed in referring the matter to the Security Council with another resolution against Iran, escalation may not be avoidable.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly