Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded “action, not words” from the US if it wants to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several other world powers, challenging President Joe Biden to take the first step toward a thaw. Iran has set a deadline of next week for President Biden to begin reversing sanctions imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump, or it will take its biggest step yet to breach the deal, banning short-notice inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog. “We have heard many nice words and promises which in practice have been broken and opposite actions have been taken,” Khamenei said in a televised speech. “Words and promises are no good. This time (we want) only action from the other side, and we will also act.”
President Joe Biden aims to restore the pact under which Iran agreed to curbs on its disputed uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of sanctions, a major achievement of the Obama administration that former President Donald Trump scrapped in 2018, calling the deal one-sided in Iran’s favor and reimposing a wide range of sanctions. Iran and the US are at odds over who should make the first step to revive the accord. Iran says the US must first lift Trump’s sanctions while the US says that Iran must first return to compliance with the deal, which it began violating after Trump launched his “maximum pressure” campaign. Highlighting the urgency of a diplomatic solution to the standoff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a rare phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which she urged Tehran to take steps ensuring its return to full compliance. “It is now time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution,” Merkel told Rouhani.
Iran has accelerated its breaches of the deal’s restrictions in recent months, culminating in an announcement that it will end snap inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency on February 23. Such inspections, which can range anywhere beyond Iran’s declared nuclear sites, are mandated under the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” that Iran agreed to honor under the deal. It signed up to the Protocol in 2003 but has not ratified it. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a press briefing that the US was aware of Iran’s plan to cease snap inspections. “As we and partners have underscored, Iran should reverse these steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances,” Price said, adding: “The path for diplomacy remains open.”
An IAEA report on February 10 said Iran had informed the IAEA of plans to install more of its advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its main underground enrichment plant at Natanz, in a further move apparently meant to pile pressure on Washington. The IAEA reported on February 1 that Iran had brought a second cascade, or cluster, of IR-2m machines online at Natanz, and was installing two more. The 2015 deal says Iran can only enrich with far less efficient, first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. Iran recently began enriching uranium to 20% fissile purity at another site, Fordow, well above its previous level of 4.5% and the deal’s 3.67% limit, though still well before the 90% that is weapons-grade. Iran had enriched to 20% before the deal. Refining uranium to high levels of fissile purity is a potential pathway to nuclear bombs, though Iran has long said its enrichment program is for peaceful energy purposes only. European parties to the deal, which have called on Tehran not to halt snap inspections, will discuss the issue with the United States on February 11, the French Foreign Ministry said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani played down the importance of the snap inspections, saying that ending them would not be a “significant step”, as Iran would still comply with obligations under a so-called Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. “We will end the implementation of the Additional Protocol on February 23 and what will be implemented will be based on the safeguards,” Rouhani said at a televised cabinet meeting. “The Additional Protocol is a step beyond safeguards.” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA said on February 10 that the agency’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, would visit Iran on February 13 to discuss the country’s plan to scale back cooperation with inspectors next week.