For months, Iran has slowly been violating terms of a 2015 deal designed to limit its nuclear program. It has been accumulating enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear reactors or, potentially, nuclear weapons. It's been ramping up its research and development.
But until recently, there was one thing Iran didn't touch: the nuclear inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Iran tends to stay away from pestering the IAEA," says Dina Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group.
That is now changing. Almost three years after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions, Iran has begun limiting access to the nuclear inspectors who keep watch over its program.
While the IAEA has found a temporary workaround, it appears that its nuclear inspectors may soon lose access to sites and cameras that it was given under the agreement.
During the U.S. presidential campaign, Joe Biden signaled willingness to rejoin the deal, but so far, his administration and the Iranians have been unable to agree on how the U.S. would reenter the agreement. Unless a political agreement can be brokered to at least provide some sanctions relief, key data may be lost by the end of May.
"Time is not on our side," says Corey Hinderstein, the vice president for fuel cycle strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an arms control think tank.
The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and other nations was designed to drastically scale back Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. A key provision of the agreement was that Iran would provide access to international inspectors, so that they could keep meticulous tabs on everything the program was up to. IAEA inspectors fanned out across the entire nation, monitoring not just Iran's nuclear facilities, but its R&D and even the mines where it extracts natural uranium. The agreement also allowed for the extensive use of technology, including security cameras and remote devices that allowed inspectors to tell precisely at what levels Iran was enriching uranium, even when they weren't in the building.
The result was reams of data then feed into reports about what exactly Iran is up to. The expanded access provided to the inspectors is a cornerstone of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. "If there isn't the strengthened monitoring and verification in Iran, there is no JCPOA," says Hinderstein.
Although China, Russia, the EU and several other nations remain in the deal with Iran, it has been under strain since the U.S. pulled out in 2018. President Donald Trump called the deal "horrible," saying it did not go far enough to limit Iran's nuclear program and completely failed to address other bad behavior. His administration applied harsh sanctions against key Iranian economic sectors such as oil and banking, and effectively blocked other partners in the deal from providing relief on their own.
For a while Iran did nothing, but then it started to slowly ratchet up its nuclear infrastructure: It began to enrich more uranium, added more "centrifuges" — the machines that do the job — and ramped up its R&D. Each step the nation has taken thus far has been relatively easy to reverse, analysts say, should sanctions relief start to come through.
Then a top nuclear scientist was assassinated in November. In response, the nation's conservative parliament passed a law saying some inspections must cease until the promised sanctions relief arrives.
"That was basically Iran's parliament's way of trying to regain control of the entire process because they were getting fed up," Esfandiary says.
In late February, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi raced to Tehran to try to find a solution. Upon his return, he announced that the agency had reached an agreement "after what was a very very intensive consultation, negotiation with our Iranian counterparts."
The exact nature of the agreement between Iran and the IAEA, the Vienna-based atomic watchdog, remains confidential. But Hinderstein says the goal was to preserve data. Take, for example, those cameras that monitor warehouses and workshops: "The information would be stored in the camera, or at the location, but nobody would look at those images," Hinderstein says.
Normally the IAEA would see this kind of information quickly. But now, if you think of Iran's nuclear program as a book, "What this is is basically tearing out the pages, but putting them in a sealed envelope off to the side," she says.
The data will be held for up to three months. If by then, Iran has received some economic benefits, it would be restored but without a political agreement, it will be dumped.
And that would be a big problem says Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Because particularly to the European parties to the deal, all that data inspectors have collected on Iran's program have been extremely valuable.
"I think that the inspection verification aspect of the deal has been the main reason why, for example, European countries in this agreement have stuck by the deal," she says. "The fact that you had Grossi taking that trip to Tehran in the middle of a pandemic should be an indicator of how serious the issue was for them to resolve."
Based on the data collected from the IAEA thus far, it appears that today Iran is far closer to having a nuclear weapons capability, should it choose to pursue one, than it was before the Trump administration left the deal.
Inspectors have also seen no evidence so far that Iran is actively trying to get a nuke. But if the U.S. and Iran can't revive the deal, and the cameras are shut off for good, Hinderstein says, it will become much harder to tell what Iran is really up to.