WASHINGTON — Iran has agreed to let United Nations inspectors into two previously blocked nuclear sites, officials said Wednesday, reversing itself during an international feud over its nuclear program that has divided world powers and increasingly isolated the United States.
In a joint statement, the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran said they had reached a good-faith agreement for the inspections to verify that Tehran’s nuclear program remained peaceful. Iran is “voluntarily providing” access to the sites, the statement said, and the inspections have been scheduled.
After what it called “intensive” discussions, the nuclear agency “does not have further questions to Iran,” the statement said.
Just two months ago, the IAEA had accused Iran of hiding suspected nuclear activity after inspectors were refused access in the two unidentified locations. The agency, which serves as the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, also said Iran had for nearly a year evaded inquiries about its possible undeclared nuclear material and activities.
But with the U.N. Security Council split over whether to restore international sanctions against Iran’s economy — and demolish a 2015 accord that limits its nuclear program — Tehran has softened its earlier defiance.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran described relations with the IAEA as “very good” and said he hoped to increase cooperation with the agency. He said the IAEA had a “vital responsibility” in helping to keep the 2015 nuclear deal intact.
His comments, as reported by Iranian state media, came after a meeting in Tehran on Wednesday with Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director general.
Rouhani also said a vast majority of states on the Security Council continued to support the 2015 accord, and he expressed hope that American “unilateralism” would come to an end, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The State Department urged the inspections to be thorough and conducted immediately, given that the IAEA has yet to be assured that Iran’s nuclear program is compliant with international guidelines.
“Access is only the first step,” the department said in a statement. “Iran must provide nothing short of full cooperation, and the IAEA needs answers to its questions about potential undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
The IAEA inspections are not part of the 2015 nuclear deal, and the agency will focus only on nuclear material and activities relevant to specific protocols as required by the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But the Trump administration had seized on the IAEA’s findings in June as an example of Iran’s nefarious diplomacy.
Although the IAEA did not identify the two sites to be inspected, Israeli intelligence officials have identified one as the Abadeh Nuclear Weapons Development Site. Experiments using conventional explosives are believed to have been conducted there. When inspectors demanded access last year, satellite photographs showed that some buildings had been razed.
In 2018, fulfilling a campaign promise, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear agreement that was brokered between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council. (Germany was also a signatory to the deal, which was negotiated largely by the Obama administration and the European Union.)
But since then, the State Department has failed to force Iran back into negotiations for a new deal to also limit Tehran’s ballistic missile program and military assistance to Shiite militias across the Middle East. A U.S. sanctions campaign to pressure Iran by denying it billions of dollars in exports and revenues has also irked other nations that want the original nuclear accord to be preserved.
On Wednesday morning, the State Department tweeted a photograph of Trump boasting that he had “imposed the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.”
“This has caused great difficulty for them giving money to terrorist organizations,” the tweet said.
The Trump administration is now insisting that the U.N. restore broader, international sanctions against Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 agreement. On Tuesday, however, the president of the Security Council said there was not enough support for the American demand and therefore it was “not in the position to take further action.”
The flap has alienated the United States from its closest allies in Europe, where diplomats have said the Trump administration offered few opportunities to negotiate and had not shown willingness to compromise before trying to force the sanctions through the Security Council.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has maintained that the sanctions must be restored, as required under Security Council resolutions, to punish Iran for violating some terms of the nuclear deal. But European diplomats said that a dispute mechanism, as invoked in January by Britain, France and Germany, must first be resolved before the international sanctions take effect again.