'Time running out' to save Iran nuclear deal, UN warns

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acting head Cornel Feruta gestures as he addresses the media during a board of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 9, 2019
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acting head Cornel Feruta gestures as he addresses the media during a board of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 9, 2019 REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Pressure is growing on Iran to stick to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal as the country moves closer to building an atomic weapon.


"Time is of the essence" Cornel Feruta, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) insisted Monday, after Iran announced it was launching advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium at a quicker rate.

Feruta, who met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran, urged them to respond "promptly" to the Agency's concerns about Iran's latest move away from its commitments to the 2015 deal with world powers.

Iran was complying with the deal intended to curb its development of nuclear weapons until the US pulled out of the accord in May last year and reimposed crippling economic sanctions.

Tehran says it has lost patience with European countries for failing to deliver on their promised economic benefits.

The choice to breach

"The European Union was supposed to be the replacement of the US but, unfortunately, they failed to act on their promises," Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters, saying the Islamic Republic had little choice but to scale back its commitments.

This is the third time Iran has breached the stockpile and enrichment level limits set by the deal, and is now believed to be capable of producing 20 percent enriched uranium in two days.

Analysts argue 20 percent is just a short technical step away from 90 percent enrichment, which is enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

"The fact that Iran is so capable of simply turning off aspects of the deal and then starting to enrich uranium again shows the limitations of the deal from the beginning," reckons Mitchell Belfer, head of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, a think tank in Rome.

Flawed deal

“Nothing has been dismantled, there was only a suspension, so the Iranians could always go back to work on their nuclear programme and that has essentially been the flaw," he told RFI.

The 2015 deal, described as a diplomatic triumph, has been unravelling since Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America from the accord. In the time since, regional tensions have risen dramatically, and the UN nuclear watchdog has warned that time is running out to save it.

It may not be worth the hassle. Critics like Belfer fault the deal for failing to guarantee long-term stability.

"You cannot have a nuclear deal that rewards financially a regime that takes the money to support terrorist groups in the very region that we’re trying to stabilize in the collective West."

The mullahs and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have in recent months attacked ships and drones, while Iranian proxies have hit pipelines in Saudi Arabia.

Tinder box

"EU leaders need to show Iran what can happen if it continues on this path," comments Belfer, warning that this path could lead to an all-out war.

"The Gulf is becoming a tinder box again," he says referring to tit for tat tanker incidents near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for global oil shipment. "One match and it can go up again."

France, Germany and Britain have struggled to save the deal by setting up a barter trade mechanism with Iran, known as Instex, to essentially allow goods to be bartered between Iranian companies and foreign ones without direct financial transactions or using the dollar. However, it has yet to get off the ground and Tehran last Wednesday set a 60-day deadline for the Europeans.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been leading talks seeking relief for Iran, and has offered about 14 billion euros in credit lines until the end of the year if Tehran comes fully back into compliance; although recent developments suggest this may now be unlikely.

“Macron is going really far in showing French commitment to the deal but it’s for economic interest," reckons Belfer.

Delicate balancing act

French oil giant Total has invested "heavily" in infrastructure and "they’re set to lose quite a lot if Iran finally puts to bed the deal.”

This short-term vision not only misses the bigger picture, but comes with risks.

"The US will look suspiciously at states that continue to trade and therefore to reinforce the [Iranian] regime financially, so I think it’s a delicate balancing act that Macron will have to strike," said Belfer.

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