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United Nations atomic watchdog chief heading to Iran, seeks more access to nuclear sites

The head of the UN's atomic watchdog agency will head to Tehran next week to press Iranian authorities for access to sites where the country is thought to have stored or used undeclared nuclear material, the organization said Saturday.

Visit comes amid international pressure on the country over its nuclear program

Rafael Grossi, head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, is shown during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vienna International Center in December, when he became the agency's director general. (Ronald Zak/The Associated Press)

The head of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency will head to Tehran next week to press Iranian authorities for access to sites where the country is thought to have stored or used undeclared nuclear material, the organization said Saturday.

It will be the first visit to Iran of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi since he took office last December and comes amid intense international pressure on the country over its nuclear program.

The focus will be on access to sites thought to be from the early 2000s, before Iran signed the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran maintains the IAEA inspectors have no legal basis to inspect the sites.

"My objective is that my meetings in Tehran will lead to concrete progress in addressing the outstanding questions that the agency has related to safeguards in Iran and, in particular, to resolve the issue of access," Grossi said in a statement.

"I also hope to establish a fruitful and co-operative channel of direct dialogue with the Iranian government which will be valuable now and in the future."

The Iranian delegation to international organizations in Vienna tweeted that "we hope this visit will lead to reinforced mutual co-operation."

Since President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, the other countries involved — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — have been struggling to keep it alive.

The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. But with the reinstatement of some American sanctions, Iran's economy has been steadily deteriorating, and Tehran has begun violating provisions of the agreement to try to pressure the other countries to do more to offset those sanctions.

U.S. ratcheting up pressure

At the same time, Iran has continued to provide IAEA inspectors with access to its nuclear facilities — one of the major reasons the countries still party to the agreement stress that it's important to keep it alive.

Last week, the U.S. ratcheted up the pressure, officially informing the United Nations it was demanding the restoration of all UN sanctions on Iran, arguing that Iran is in non-compliance and invoking a provision of the nuclear deal to "snap back" even more sanctions.

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via The Associated Press)

Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, who often disagree, all declared the U.S. action illegal, arguing it is impossible to withdraw from a deal and then use the resolution that endorsed it to reimpose sanctions.

Iran has also rejected the move, but the U.S. has stuck to its guns, declaring that a 30-day countdown for the snapback of penalties eased after the 2015 agreement was signed had begun.

The five nations and Iran are due to meet in Vienna on Sept. 1.

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