The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency said after talks in Iran on February 21 over Tehran's threat to curb international inspections that the two sides reached an agreement but that Iran will suspend a key document on cooperation and offer "less access" to inspectors.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi was speaking after meetings with senior Iranian officials to seek a compromise two days before Iran's deadline for the reductions if U.S. sanctions are not lifted.
In an assessment that will surely be challenged by Iran hawks in the West, Grossi said he got "a good, reasonable result" from his talks.
Grossi said Tehran will apply a law passed two months ago by the hard-line parliament suspending the so-called Additional Protocol of nuclear safeguards that allows IAEA inspectors to visit undeclared sites in Iran at short notice.
But he added that he had agreed with Iranian officials that the IAEA would continue necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to three months.
"What we agreed is something that is viable, [is] useful to bridge this gap that we are having, [that] salvages the situation now," Grossi said after his return from Iran.
"There is less access, let's face it. But still we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work," he said, calling it "a temporary technical understanding."
As Grossi was on his mission to Tehran, senior Iranian and U.S. officials each left open the possibility of fresh negotiations over a return by both sides to a landmark 2015 nuclear deal that traded sanctions relief for nuclear curbs.
But they also heaped pressure on the other to move first in the ongoing diplomatic standoff over Iran's ongoing pursuit of nuclear technology.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted by Iranian Press TV as saying on February 21 that Tehran was open to such talks once all signatories were fulfilling all their obligations.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden's national-security adviser told a weekend news program on February 21 that "Iran has not yet responded" to the new U.S. administration's call for a return to the negotiating table.
Jake Sullivan reiterated that Biden is "prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program."
"That offer still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it," Sullivan added.
Iran this month threatened to stop implementing "voluntary transparency measures" under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) with major powers, including the Additional Protocol, by February 23. Tehran has said that the steps are reversible.
That prompted the visit by Grossi for talks with officials including Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's civilian Atomic Energy Organization.
The IAEA said last week that Grossi’s visit to Tehran was aimed at finding “a mutually agreeable solution for the IAEA to continue essential verification activities in the country.”
Zarif has said the IAEA's cameras will be shut off despite Grossi's visit in line with legislation passed by the hard-line parliament.
“This is not a deadline for the world. This is not an ultimatum,” Zarif told the state-run, English-language broadcaster Press TV in an interview aired during Grossi's visit. “This is an internal domestic issue between the parliament and the government.
"We are supposed to implement the laws of the country. And the parliament adopted legislation -- whether we like it or not.”
Iran's parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if the country does not receive sanctions relief.
It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court."-- U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan
Iran has stressed it will not cease working with the IAEA or expel its inspectors.
Iran and six major powers struck the JCPOA over the objections of conservatives in both countries to trade curbs on Iran’s uranium-enrichment program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
But then-President Donald Trump in May 2018 pulled the United States out of the accord and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, saying the terms were not strict enough.
In response, Tehran has gradually breached the deal by building up its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, refining uranium to a higher level of purity, and using advanced centrifuges for enrichment.
Biden's administration is exploring ways to return to the deal.
The White House said on February 19 that the European Union has floated the idea of a conversation among Iran and the six major powers that signed the deal.
On the same day, Biden said that Washington is prepared to reengage with the international partners that signed the deal on Iran's nuclear program.
The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal two years ago has led to tensions among Western partners over the best way to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.
On CBS television, Sullivan said on February 21 that Washington's call for "hard-headed, clear-eyed diplomacy" has had the result "that the script has been flipped" on Iran.
"It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States," he said. "And the ball is in their court."
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on February 20 that his country is considering the European Union’s offer to host a meeting between Iran and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal.
“Now we are considering [the offer] and are engaged in consultations with our other friends and partners like China and Russia,” Araqchi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
"However, we believe a U.S return to the nuclear accord does not require a meeting and the only way for it is to lift the sanctions," Araqchi said.