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Iran nuclear deal nears potential ‘fatal blow’ as Tehran removes cameras, watchdog chief says

VIENNA — Iran will remove surveillance cameras from key nuclear sites, the U.N. nuclear watchdog head said Thursday, leaving international observers in the dark and imperiling a deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said dismantling the cameras poses a “serious challenge” to the agency’s work in Iran. Speaking to journalists in Vienna, Grossi warned the agency will be unable to maintain a “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s nuclear program in about three to four weeks.

If that happens, Grossi stressed, it will deliver a “fatal blow” to the Iran nuclear deal, which once restricted Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — has been badly frayed since the U.S. pulled out in 2018 and negotiations to revive the deal have stalled in recent weeks. 

Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation at the Arms Control Association, said on Twitter that Grossi was not exaggerating: “If the agency cannot ensure continuity of knowledge about Iran’s program, the IAEA will not be able to implement the JCPOA’s monitoring and verification provision.”

Iran’s decision to remove the surveillance cameras is retaliation for a resolution the 35-member IAEA board of governors overwhelmingly approved Wednesday night. The measure censured Iran for failing to fully answer questions for over two years about the origins of uranium traces found at several locations inside the country.

“The approval of the foregoing resolution happened based on a hasty and unbalanced report by the IAEA director general,” Iran said in a statement Thursday, arguing it had engaged in “constructive cooperation” with the IAEA.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said later Thursday that Iran “will not back down even one step from our position,” according to Iranian state-owned media.

The 27 cameras Iran will remove have practically all been installed under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at various facilities in Iran, including an underground Natanz site, an Isfahan site and another location in Tehran. 

They are indispensable for the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s production of advanced centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium. 

Without the cameras, a gap of crucial information will begin at the moment of removal. The longer this blank space lasts, the more difficult it will become for IAEA inspectors to reconstruct how many advanced centrifuges or how much uranium have been produced. It may also fuel renewed speculation about whether Iran could be diverting nuclear material for covert activities.

The removal of the cameras comes as Iran is closer than ever to amassing enough highly-enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. Earlier this week, Grossi acknowledged Iran could reach this point in just a few weeks.

But experts also caution it will take Iran longer to actually build a nuclear weapon, if it decides to do so. 

Iran has long insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. 

Iran will keep in place around 40 surveillance cameras that have been installed under the so-called Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, a separate legal document unrelated to the JCPOA, under which the IAEA inspectors will retain some access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and its program. 

“Whether it is aimed at coercion or punishment, Iran’s removal of the cameras fundamentally undermines the logic that it is trying to preserve space for an imminent revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reduces the odds of a deal this year from 55 percent to 40 percent,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group.

But Rome also said it is possible Iran is “making a last-ditch effort to grasp for token concessions before seriously reviving talks” in Vienna to restore the Iran nuclear deal. “But this is no longer the most likely option.”

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