MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: ‘We are close to a nuclear deal,’ US State Department spokesman says

In call with IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi, PM Bennett raises issue of undeclared nuclear material found in Iran and emphasizes Israel’s expectation the UN nuclear agency to act professionally and impartially.

ISRAEEL HAYOM – 3-04-2022

Negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal appeared to near a climax with talk of an imminent ministerial meeting as a UN report on Thursday showed Iran is most of the way to amassing enough enriched uranium for one bomb if purified further.”We are close to a possible deal,” Jalina Porter, the US State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, told reporters but cautioned that unsolved issues remained and that time was of the essence given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report showed Iran’s stock of uranium enriched up to 60% fissile purity had almost doubled to 33.2 kg (110 pounds), which a senior diplomat said was around three-quarters of the amount needed, if enriched further, for a nuclear bomb, according to a common yardstick.

The UN nuclear watchdog report comes as negotiators seek to resurrect the deal between world powers and Iran under which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions that slashed its oil exports.

Global oil prices, which had surged to their highest levels in roughly a decade because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, steadied on expectations the deal may be restored, allowing more Iranian oil to flow into a tight market.

However, US, Iranian, and European officials all said an agreement had not yet been struck even as some participants were upbeat.

“There are some issues that need to be finalized … the outstanding issues are relatively small, but not yet settled,” said Russia’s envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, who publicly has been the most optimistic participant in the 11 months of talks.

Ulyanov told reporters that he did not believe the talks would now collapse and a ministerial meeting – typically where a deal would be blessed – was likely. He could not say if such a meeting would be held on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said more work was needed, however, and a White House official said there was “no change” from Wednesday when it had said all sides were working to clarify the most difficult issues.

“Some relevant issues are still open and success is never guaranteed,” Enrique Mora, the European Union diplomat coordinating the talks, wrote on Twitter. “We are definitely not there yet.”

Another wild card is an effort by the IAEA to resolve questions about nuclear material that the Vienna-based agency suspects Iran failed to declare, another obstacle to reaching an agreement to revive the deal.

The IAEA has found particles of processed uranium at three apparently old sites that Iran never declared and has repeatedly said Tehran has not provided satisfactory answers.

Iran wants the IAEA investigation ended as part of an agreement but Western powers have argued that the issue is beyond the scope of the 2015 deal, to which the IAEA is not a party.

Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director-general, will travel to Tehran on Saturday in the hope an agreement will be reached on a process that would lead to the end of the investigation, potentially clearing a way for the wider agreement, diplomats said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel said he spoke with Grossi about the unexplained traces. He said he emphasized Israel’s positions regarding the nuclear talks in Vienna, as well as the situation regarding the open cases in the IAEA that deal with the Iranian weapons program.

Bennett also emphasized Israel’s expectation that the IAEA would act as a professional and impartial supervisory body.

The two agreed to stay in regular contact

Western powers have said Iran’s nuclear progress may soon make the talks pointless, a possibility illustrated by the IAEA report. It showed Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity rose by 15.5 kg to 33.2 kg (46 to 110 pounds).

A common yardstick is that 25 kg of uranium enriched to 90% is what is theoretically needed for one bomb.

How much is required in real life would depend on further processes the material would still have to go through to make an actual bomb, said the senior diplomat on condition of anonymity.