Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, center, attends a meeting with the Head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

Iran-UN nuclear agreement signals 'very, very tempered optimism' for negotiations, Iran analyst says

Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, joined The World's Carol Hills to discuss a recent agreement between Iran and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency that will allow for the reset of monitoring devices at Iranian nuclear sites.

The World

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, center, attends a meeting with the Head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 12, 2021.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP

Nuclear talks between the US and Iran remain stalled, but a new agreement between Iran and the United Nations is providing some hope that those nuclear talks could relaunch.

Iran agreed Sunday to allow international inspectors to install new memory cards into surveillance cameras at its sensitive nuclear sites and to continue filming there. 

Related: US launches airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militias

The agreement still leaves the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency in the same position it faced since February, however. Tehran holds all recordings at its sites as negotiations over the US and Iran returning to the 2015 nuclear deal remain stalled in Vienna. 

Meanwhile, Iran is now enriching small amounts of uranium to its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade purity as its stockpile continues to grow. This violates limits stipulated under the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, and is meant to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.

The US unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, but Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia have tried to preserve the accord.

The recent Iran-UN announcement could buy time for Iran ahead of an IAEA board meeting this week in which Western powers had been arguing for Tehran to be censured over its lack of cooperation with international inspectors. 

Related: Iranian journalist targeted in alleged Iran kidnap plot says operation ‘must be condemned’

Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Washington, has been following these developments closely. 

Carol Hills: First of all, what does it mean to reset monitoring devices at Iranian nuclear sites? 
Naysan Rafati: Well, it means that the International Atomic Energy Agency has surveillance cameras as part of its mandate for monitoring and verification. There are inspectors that go to sites. It does reporting on the state of Iran's nuclear program, but it also has cameras in place. And these memory cards are sealed and they're on the Iranian side. But what they allow the agency to do is to basically see what Iran has been up to while its nuclear program continues to advance. So, it's one of those issues where it strengthens the one side of the international nuclear agreement with Iran, which is monitoring and verification authorities. 
Should we read it also as a nod toward maybe Iran being interested in restarting talks with the US?
Well, I think that that's really the key issue in the sense that it sounds like a very technical discussion and it is, in a sense, a very technical discussion, when we're talking about resetting cameras. Really what I think the US, the three European parties, everyone that's interested in reviving the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] we're looking to was, will Tehran, would they make any kind of nod toward cooperative relations with the IAEA? And that could in turn, lead to a resumption of negotiations, or would they drag this out, risk a censure resolution and see the crisis kind of continue to escalate?
You mentioned Iran's new, more conservative government. Does this news signal that maybe it's willing to engage with the international community on this nuclear program more than the previous government?
Well, I'm not sure I'd say more than the previous governments. I would say that any Iranian administration, presidential administration, is a player in Iran's nuclear posture, but it is one of several different centers of power. But we know for a fact that under the Rouhani administration, which left office in August, they were the ones that originally signed the agreement in 2015 with the US and the other world powers. And so, they had a vested legacy, interest, in a sense, to make sure that it didn't collapse entirely. Raisi and some of the conservatives and the hard-liners that now control all of the centers of power in Iran have been much more skeptical about the JCPOA to begin with. So right now, I think that this weekend's trip was kind of the first major test of whether or not the Raisi government was serious and the Iranian administration now was serious about, if not necessarily reengaging in the talks, then at least trying to stem a burgeoning crisis — especially if they faced a censure resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors. So, there's still quite a bit that has to fall into place to be able to say that negotiations are back on track. But I think you could also say that they are less derailed than they might have been otherwise. 
When you heard about this and read about it, do you think, "Hmm, this is a good sign. Good." Or do you think, "Eh, same old. Same old."
I don't think it's same old, same old. When the news came this weekend that [IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi] had indeed come to some sort of agreement, I think it's very, very tempered optimism, optimism in the sense that a potential crisis this week at the IAEA Board of Governors has been seemingly averted for the moment, but tempered by the realization that there is still a great deal that needs to fall into place, including, centrally, the US and Iran resuming their indirect negotiations in Vienna before we can get to a point where we can say that Iran's nuclear program is on the road to being more restricted and better verified than it is right now. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.