The U.S. and European powers are giving Iran a last chance to start cooperating with a United Nations atomic agency probe of Tehran’s nuclear activities, backing away from a formal censure of Iran in a bid to revive nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Tehran.
Britain, France and Germany decided Thursday not to present a resolution censuring Iran that they had floated to other International Atomic Energy Agency member states earlier in the week. Iran had warned the move could lead it to further curtail international inspections of the country and dissuade it from engaging in direct talks with the U.S. on its nuclear program.
The decision was backed by Washington, senior diplomats said, reflecting U.S. concerns that renewed pressure on Iran could derail diplomacy.
At a press conference on Thursday, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said Iran had agreed to sit down for what he described as “a focused and systematic effort” to clarify a series of so-called safeguards issues the IAEA has been asking Iran about for the last two years.
The concerns center on several discoveries of sites in Iran where nuclear material—various kinds of uranium—has been found. Under its international nonproliferation obligations, Iran is obliged to declare nuclear material in the country. The agency wants to know where the uranium traces come from and has asked about the whereabouts and use of specific nuclear material including uranium metal discs it believes Iran has possessed since the early 2000s.
The IAEA and Western capitals say Iran had a structured nuclear weapons program until 2003 but there has been no evidence that has continued more recently. Iran denies ever having worked on a nuclear weapons program but it has repeatedly obstructed the IAEA probe, keeping inspectors out of sites for months and failing to give what the agency believes are credible answers to its questions.
Mr. Grossi said the IAEA’s discussions with Iran will start in April and that he hoped to have a “final outcome” by June, when the agency’s board of member states next meet.
Senior European officials said that the new agreement between Iran and the IAEA was enough to put on hold their planned resolution to censure Iran on Wednesday evening. A censure resolution can be escalated to the U.N. Security Council for action.
“We all recognized that there were upsides and downsides,” said one senior European diplomat. “What shifted things was Grossi’s progress on safeguards and the sense that…we didn’t want to create new obstacles to diplomacy at a moment where we begin to see some movement.”
The move was also welcomed by Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov. Russia and China, two veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, had opposed the European censure plan.
“The resolution could have led to uncontrolled escalation. Now diplomacy has a chance,” Mr. Ulyanov said on Twitter.
The European decision comes at a delicate time in negotiations to arrange direct nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S. aimed at resurrecting the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Tehran agree to limit its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
The Biden administration has said it wants to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal and then negotiate a deeper, broader agreement with Tehran that also addresses Iran’s military posture and activities in the Middle East. However, U.S. officials say Iran must first reverse all its breaches of the deal that it took in reaction to former President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to take the U.S. out of the deal and reimpose sweeping sanctions on Tehran.
On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani repeated Iran’s position that the U.S. must lift sanctions for diplomacy to resume while he attacked European pressure on Iran as “political games.”
Privately however, people familiar with discussions said that Iran wants to agree with the U.S. to a prepackaged set of steps in which each side would move in parallel back to compliance. Iran wants to be sure that any meeting would result in initial steps toward easing economic pressure on Tehran, the diplomats said.
Iran’s foreign ministry welcomed the European countries’ decision to back away from the resolution, with a spokesman saying this “can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran and the IAEA.”
However, the move could prove controversial in Washington and among Western allies in the Gulf and Israel. Iran has proven adept during past nuclear talks at forcing concessions from its Western partners to defuse a crisis. Some diplomats warned this would encourage Iran to scale up its conditions for a return to the nuclear deal.
European officials said that they still have the option of calling an extraordinary meeting of the IAEA board and tabling the resolution if Iran doesn’t cooperate with the agency and if Iran continues to sit out direct nuclear talks with the U.S.
The U.S. chargé d’affaires, Louis Bono, echoed that in his speech to the IAEA board on Thursday.
“The United States…will calibrate our views on the board’s next steps according to whether Iran seizes the opportunity now before it to finally and credibly address the IAEA’s concerns,” Mr. Bono said.
—Aresu Eqbali in Tehran contributed to this article.
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