VIENNA, Aug 24, (Agencies): US President Donald Trump’s UN envoy Nikki Haley told the world’s atomic watchdog Wednesday that Washington has “concerns” about Iran’s adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Haley “praised the IAEA’s technical expertise and its credibility, professionalism and seriousness in conducting its monitoring and verification work in Iran,” a statement from her office said.
But at the talks in Vienna she and International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano “discussed US concerns about ensuring Iran strictly adheres to its obligations.”
The statement said that “IAEA reports (about Iran’s adherence to the accord) can only be as good as the access Iran grants to any facility the IAEA suspects of having a nuclear role.”
The communique did not elaborate but this is likely a reference to the IAEA visiting military sites where the watchdog might suspect efforts to create an actual nuclear warhead.
Iran denies wanting the bomb and the IAEA is not thought to have requested any such visits since the nuclear deal entered into force in January 2016.
Its regular reports focus on Iran’s declared nuclear activities and say only that it is continuing to monitor Tehran’s commitments not to conduct any weapons-related research.
The IAEA did not comment after Wednesday’s meeting.
The 2015 deal between Iran and six major powers saw the Islamic republic curtail its uranium enrichment and plutonium capacities and submit to closer IAEA inspections.
This is aimed at making any covert dash to make a nuclear bomb extremely difficult.
Most UN and Western sanctions on Iran were lifted in return, but others related to non-nuclear issues have remained in place or been ratcheted up.
With Trump slamming the 2015 deal as “terrible”, tensions have risen between the two long-time foes, with each accusing the other of not adhering to the “spirit” of the accord.
Trump is due in October to certify to Congress whether Iran is sticking to the deal.
In July he told the Wall Street Journal he “would be surprised if they were in compliance”.
The Washington Post on Tuesday quoted Haley as saying “no decision” has been made on the future of the deal, which also included Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
Trump’s outspoken remarks about the accord, during last year’s election campaign and since he entered the White House, have been sharply criticised by many nuclear experts.
“The Trump administration needs a wake-up call on the costs of sabotaging the nuclear deal with Iran,” Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP.
“Hopefully visiting the IAEA will allay concerns about monitoring the agreement and demonstrate to Haley that the deal put Iran’s nuclear programme under a microscope and keeping it there is the best way to guard against any illicit nuclear activity,” she said.
Thousands of Iranian-backed fighters in Syria’s central desert region are advancing east, bringing Tehran closer to its goal of securing a corridor from its border, through Iraq and all the way to the Mediterranean and providing it unhindered land access to its allies in Syria and Lebanon for the first time.
The land-route would be the biggest prize yet for Iran in its involvement in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
It would facilitate movement of Iranian-backed fighters between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as the flow of weapons to Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy group. It also positions Iran to play a prime and lucrative role in what is expected to be a massive rebuilding effort in both Iraq and Syria, which have been devastated in their ongoing wars.
The potential for a physical artery for Iran’s influence across the region is raising concern in predominantly Sunni Arab countries and in Israel, the nemesis of both Iran and Hezbollah. It poses a challenge to the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight Iran’s growing reach.
The route is largely being carved out by Iran’s allies and proxies, a mix of forces including troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias on both sides of the border aiming to link up. Iran also has forces of its own Revolutionary Guard directly involved in the campaign on the Syrian side.
Concerns over their advances are expected to come up when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds talks Wednesday in the Russian resort of Sochi with President Vladimir Putin, whose country is an ally of Iran and Assad.
The talks will focus “first and foremost (on) preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” David Keyes, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said.
“Iran’s aggression in the region continues to grow. The regime is trying to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s border. Israel cannot and will not allow this,” he said. “Any cease-fire which allows Iran to establish a foothold in Syria is a danger to the entire region.”
A corridor would be a boost for Israel’s powerful enemy Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Iran currently ships weapons to Hezbollah mostly by flying them to Syria to be shipped on the ground to Lebanon.
Israel has warned it would do what it can to keep Iran from threatening its borders and has carried out airstrikes in Syria against suspected weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Israel pushed hard for a US-and Russia-brokered truce that came into effect recently in southern Syria to keep Iranian-backed militias at a distance from the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The land route is by no means a fait accompli. Any road link will likely be a frequent target by Sunni insurgent groups.
But Iran’s allies are making progress on both sides of the border, taking territory from the Islamic State group.
In recent months, Syrian troops and allied militiamen have marched forward on three fronts toward areas bordering Iraq. One of their main targets is the IS-held eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where the militants have imposed a siege for years on a small government-held pocket.
Iran and Saudi Arabia will soon exchange diplomatic visits, Tehran said, in a possible sign of tensions easing after the archrivals cut ties last year.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told local media the visits would take place after this year’s hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which is due to start at the beginning of September.
“Visas have been delivered for the two sides. The final steps need to be completed so our diplomats can go inspect our embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia and for Saudi diplomats to come inspect their embassy and consulate,” Zarif told news agency ISNA.
It would be the first exchange of diplomats between the two countries since they cut ties in January 2016, after Iranians stormed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in response to the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
There have been signs of a thaw in relations in recent months, including an agreement to allow Iranians to participate in this year’s hajj, a pilgrimage that Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetimes if they are able to do so.
Iranians were unable to attend the hajj last year after talks on security and logistics fell apart.
Relations between Tehran and Riyadh have been at their worst in years, with the countries trading frequent accusations of meddling and supporting different sides in conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
Zarif urged Riyadh to reconsider its foreign policy.
“Saudi Arabia’s behaviour goes against its own interests. We want security and stability throughout the region and insist on the need to fight against the dangers that threaten us all,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia has not benefitted from two years of war and horrific acts against the Yemeni people, on the contrary,” he said. “It’s the same in Syria or in Bahrain. We hope they will choose another path.”