Hardline Iranian MPs on February 22 protested against the Rouhani government’s decision to permit “necessary” monitoring of Iran’s nuclear development programme by the UN nuclear watchdog for up to three months. The lawmakers claimed the move broke a law mandating an end to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) snap inspections.
“The government has no right to decide and act arbitrarily,” said Mojtaba Zolnour, chairman of the parliament’s national security committee, according to Iranian state media. “This arrangement is an insult to the parliament.”
The pragmatic, moderate Rouhani administration defended the arrangement with the IAEA, saying it fell within legislative bounds.
The IAEA makes inspections to maintain the nuclear deal (formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, JCPOA) aimed at keeping Iran’s nuclear development programme entirely civilian. Former US President Donald Trump abandoned the JCPOA in May 2018 in favour of pursuing that objective and other Iran policies by hitting Tehran with heavy sanctions.
To pressure US President Joe Biden’s administration to lift the Trump sanctions, Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament passed a law obliging the government to end implementation of an Additional Protocol attached to the 2015 nuclear deal from February 23.
To create room to progress diplomacy—in which Biden officials are calling on Iran to restore full compliance with the nuclear deal to pave the way for the US to re-enter the accord, but Iranian officials are saying the US must drop its sanctions before they bring back the compliance—the IAEA on February 21 reached a deal with Iran to cushion the blow of Iran’s reduced cooperation with the agency and its refusal to permit short-notice inspections.
Under the new agreement, while the number of the IAEA inspectors on the ground will remain the same, Iran has said it will withhold footage recorded by cameras at some of its facilities from the IAEA for the time being, Iranian authorities said, as quoted by Reuters.
February 22 brought defiant statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who vowed that Iran will "not back down on the nuclear issue."
Iran has always claimed a fatwa forbids it from pursuing nuclear weapons, but regional foes such as Israel claim that in fact Tehran does have ambitions to develop nuclear bombs.
Khamenei also suggested that for a number of purposes Tehran could boost uranium enrichment as high as 60%—that is below the 90-% level required for a nuclear bomb, but it is far above the 20-% enrichment announced by Tehran last month and many multiples above the 3.67-% limit agreed as part of the JCPOA.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said that the US's European allies were still awaiting a response from Iran on their offer to host an informal meeting of current members of the JCPOA as well as the US.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in a pre-recorded speech that Washington hopes to extend and bolster the nuclear deal. Iran has shown no willingness to agree to such a process, stating that it was in verified full compliance with the JCPOA when Trump unilaterally pulled out of it.
"Working with allies and partners, we will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran's destabilising regional behavior and ballistic-missile development and proliferation," Blinken said.
Also on February 22, a US State Department spokesman said the US will hold Iran "responsible" for a rocket barrage on that day that targeted the US Embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, but did not cause any casualties. The spokesman added that the US won't "lash out" in response.
CNBC on February 22 quoted a senior advisor at a US think tank as saying that Washington and Tehran will ultimately be able to strike a nuclear agreement because Iran needs relief from economic sanctions. “I think, ultimately, a deal is possible because the Iranians need money,” said Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
According to the IMF, the last time Iran saw its GDP grow was in 2017, and the Islamic Republic only had access to $8.8bn in foreign exchange reserves last year. That’s down from $12.7bn in 2019 and $121.6bn in 2018. “They are suffering under the sanctions that President Trump imposed, the so-called maximum pressure campaign,” Goldberg said.
In a possible sign of some thawing in the US freeze on Iranian assets around the world, close ally of Washington South Korea on February 22 agreed to release “a part” of billions of dollars of Iranian money it had blocked in its banks for years because of the Trump sanctions. The Central Bank of Iran (CBI) said South Korean Ambassador to Tehran Ryu Jeong-hyun announced the news in a meeting his embassy called for.
“In this meeting, necessary agreements were made on how the resources will be transferred to desired destinations and the central bank’s decision on the volume of resources to be transferred and destination banks were relayed,” a statement from the CBI said, without mentioning the amount that will be released.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had said in an interview on February 21 that Iran’s funds in South Korea were “close to $10bn”.
Meeting with Japanese ambassador
Iranian media reports also spoke of CBI governor Abdolnasser Hemmati meeting with Japan’s Ambassador to Iran Aikawa Kazutoshi on removing blocks on Iranian money in Tokyo. Hemmati said that money trapped in Japan could be used for the purchase of coronavirus vaccines.
Meanwhile, Swiss Ambassador to Tehran Markus Leitner said in a meeting with Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Baqer Nobakht that Swiss companies could quickly return to Iran even before the removal of US sanctions. Fuller, Syngenta, Roche, Novartis and Nestle were willing to make further investments in Iran, he added.
Biden’s Iran team, meanwhile, have said contact has been made with Tehran over the release of detained dual American-Iranian passport holders.
A day earlier US official, Jake Sullivan said the return of Americans currently in Iranian prisons was a "significant priority" for the new US administration.
"We will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner," he said in a television interview, terming it a "humanitarian catastrophe.”
The US speaks to Iran through the Swiss embassy in Tehran.
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