The US Biden Administration on 4 February restored a number of sanctions waivers for Iran in the run up to the final weeks of negotiations to reinstate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Under the JCPOA between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. After former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, Iran began to gradually roll back on the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA after the European parties to the agreement failed to put any measures in place to mitigate those sanctions.
A waivers to the renewed sanctions had initially allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to continue to carry out non-proliferation work at three Iranian nuclear sites, but these were subsequently rescinded by the Trump in 2019 and 2020. The waivers allowed had allowed Britain and China to help Iran modify its heavy water reactor at the Arak nuclear facility as a light water reactor in order to prevent the production of plutonium. It had also enabled Russia to supply 20% enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes and to take back the used TRR fuel.
Since April 2021, Vienna has been hosting talks to restore the deal. The eighth round of talks has been underway in Vienna since late December. So far all talks between the USA and Iran have been indirect. However, the parties have previously agreed on two drafts of the deal, which included provisions covering Iranian interests. The latest talks in Vienna were "among the most intensive that we had to date," a US official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that there has been some progress in narrowing down the list of differences and that now is the time for political decisions.
The State Department has sent a report signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Congress explaining that restoring the waiver will assist the talks in Vienna. "The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran's return to performance of its JCPOA commitments," according to the report, cited by Reuters.
"It is also designed to serve US non-proliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran's nuclear activities. It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo," the report said.
The activities, according to the report, include redesign of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor, the preparation and modification of its Fordow facility for stable isotope production, operations, training and services related to its Bushehr nuclear power plant, among several other things.
Iran has consistently said it was ready to return to the JCPOA if US sanctions were dropped and in January indicated that it may now be willing take part in direct negotiations with Washington. However Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said on 5 February that the United States must show its goodwill in practice and stressed the need for guarantees. “When it comes to the Vienna talks on the lifting of sanctions, one of the key issues is to get the necessary guarantees, especially from the Western parties, about the fulfilment of their commitments,” he noted.
The US waivers may slow down the development of Tehran’s nuclear programme, Russian Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter on 5 February. “Clear provisions of the Iranian nuclear deal are totally misinterpreted by opponents. The US maximum pressure policy remains the major factor of the advancement of the Iranian nuclear programme. Probably waivers can slow it down.”
Earlier in February, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it had stopped production at one of its nuclear facilities attacked last June and transferred work to another site.
The TESA complex in Karaj had hosted a workshop to build components for centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium. Iran said cameras at the site had been damaged by the Israeli "sabotage" operation. IAEA did not immediately receive permission to gain access and replace the damaged surveillance equipment but an agreement was reached in December and new cameras were installed.
However, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said "Iran had informed the Agency on 19 January that it intended to produce centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows at a new location in Esfahan”, adding that "the Agency could adjust its surveillance and monitoring measures accordingly". Agency inspectors a few days later applied seals on all the relevant machines in the Karaj workshop, placed them under containment and then removed the surveillance cameras installed there.
Then on 24 January inspectors set up cameras at the new site in Esfahan "to ensure the machines intended for the production of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows were under monitoring". These cameras will remain in operation but the content will not be accessible to the IAEA until a new deal is reached on the JCPOA.