American officials have been ratcheting up pressure at the International Atomic Energy Agency in recent weeks, threatening new sanctions and advocating for more aggressive inspections, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg and interviews with diplomats.
However, the efforts are falling flat, say three diplomats who participated in a meeting convened next to the US IAEA embassy last week in Vienna.
It’s a rare pushback for the US at the IAEA, whose inspectors have been instrumental getting past UN sanctions applied against Iran. The episode illustrates the rising difficulty American officials face in convincing allies to follow the US on Iran.
The diplomats at the Vienna meeting asked not to be identified in return for discussing details of the private Jan. 20 briefing attended by 70 diplomats assigned to the IAEA, the body charged with verifying the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that Trump abandoned in May.
The envoys heard details of what US National Security Adviser John Bolton called “substantial evidence” that Iran lied to IAEA inspectors.
“There is a sense that the administration is frustrated that their campaign to renegotiate the deal isn’t working,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “What we see is the US maximum pressure campaign is heating up even further.”
The basis for Bolton’s allegation was an analysis by two long-time opponents to the Iran deal – the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Institute for Science and International Security. Using new data supplied by Israel, part of a larger cache allegedly stolen from Iran last year, the Washington-based researchers have claimed they identified a previously unknown Iranian nuclear facility, along with gaps in IAEA reporting.
The US wants more information reported about the sites being inspected and is threatening sanctions on IAEA technical cooperation projects with Iran, according to a separate document seen by Bloomberg and distributed to diplomats in Vienna last month.
The IAEA which ended a 12-year investigation of Iran in 2015 declined to comment. The agency subjects new information to “rigorous review,” said Director General Yukiya Amano in October. He’s said the deal provides inspectors with “the most rigorous monitoring mechanism ever negotiated.”
Iran abides by nuclear limits
Enriched uranium has remained below thresholds agreed under deal.
“There has been a concern that the US and some other countries want to precipitate an inspection crisis,” said Geranmayeh, who advises European governments on Iran. “But there’s been resistance to this. The deal’s stakeholders feel they have a good grip on what’s happening in Iran.”
Since the US left, the deal’s remaining powers – China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK – have struggled to provide the sanctions relief promised when Iran agreed to nuclear caps. While a European Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) designed to protect companies from US sanctions is expected to be ready within days, it’s faced delays.
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, said this week that Iran is ready to restart its enrichment program using more advanced technology if the agreement fails.
The diplomats in Vienna said that while they will continue engaging with the US, they want to avoid provoking a scenario that will escalate into a new crisis with Iran. Forcing the IAEA to rehash 20-year-old information could shut the doors to diplomacy and lead to “tragic consequences,” one envoy said.