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Iran set to curb nuclear inspectors' work as standoff with Biden escalates

Iran restricting U.N. nuclear inspectors
Iran limits access for U.N. nuclear inspectors in pressure campaign aimed at U.S. 05:40

Iran will restrict access for United Nations nuclear inspectors from Tuesday to increase pressure on the U.S. amid a standoff over the 2015 nuclear agreement that President Joe Biden's predecessor pulled Washington out of. The fate of that deal now hangs in the balance, with both Tehran and Washington insisting that the other side take the first significant step back toward compliance with it.

Iran will give inspectors less access, including shutting down at least some "snap" inspections of its undeclared nuclear sites. A last-minute agreement reached over the weekend between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, appeared to ensure that other monitoring would continue, but even that last ditch effort to prevent a further escalation appeared under threat by Iranian hardliners.

Iran' Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi (R), in Tehran on February 21, 2021. STR/AFP/Getty

The agreement reached between Iran's government and the visiting head of the IAEA was lambasted by conservative Iranian lawmakers as a betrayal of the parliament's decision to end all inspections without prior warning — the snap inspections permitted under so-called "Additional Protocols" tacked onto the 2015 nuclear deal — by February 23, unless unilateral U.S. sanctions are lifted.

Under the new agreement, the number of IAEA inspectors in Iran wouldn't change, but inspections would be more limited and Iran would withhold video recorded by cameras installed at some of its nuclear facilities from the IAEA for the time being, according to Iranian officials.

If Washington were to lift the sanctions within three months, Iran would then share the video, according to the country's IAEA envoy Kazem Gharibabadi. "Otherwise the data will be destroyed by Tehran forever," Gharibabadi said in a tweet.

But the threat appeared insufficient to appease Iranian hardliners. The parliament voted to formally reject the government's agreement with the IAEA and to refer its actions to the nation's judiciary, leaving the fate of the Additional Protocols in question just hours before Iranian law dictates that all snap inspections must end unless U.S. sanctions are lifted.

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Tehran's move to curb the nuclear inspectors' work would be its latest significant step away from the terms laid out by the nuclear agreement, all part of an Iranian strategy aimed at Mr. Biden.

By inching closer to the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, Iran has been trying to force the U.S. to re-join the nuclear deal and lift the crippling economic sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump after he pulled out of the agreement in 2018.

Trump, who had always vowed to pull the U.S. out of the deal negotiated by President Barack Obama and European and other global powers, piled new unilateral sanctions on Tehran in what he called a "maximum pressure" campaign, and even ordered the assassination of one of the country's top generals.

But the policy appeared to backfire badly. Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium has grown to at least 12-times what is permitted under the nuclear deal since Tehran started ramping-up its program in retaliation for Trump's withdrawal.

Iran threatens to block nuclear inspectors if U.S. does not lift sanctions 07:50

Now there's more pressure on both sides. The U.S. wants to stop Iran getting hold of material it could potentially use to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran desperately wants to get the U.S. sanctions lifted to breathe life into its flailing economy.

President Biden has made it clear that he wants to restore the deal but has insisted that Iran first return to compliance with its terms. Tehran, meanwhile, has welcomed a couple largely symbolic steps taken by the new U.S. administration, but says until the sanctions imposed by President Trump are reversed, it sees no tangible difference in the "maximum pressure" approach under the new American leader, and it won't take the first step.

The U.S. government has already begun communicating with Iran, via a third party, over at least five American hostages held by the country.'s Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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