A last-minute agreement reached with the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog will allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep watching Tehran’s nuclear activity, but not as closely as before. CBS News foreign correspondent Holly Williams joins CBSN AM with more.

Video Transcript


ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Well, Iran will restrict access for UN nuclear inspectors as part of a pressure campaign aimed at the US. The country will give less access, including shutting down some snap inspections. But a last minute agreement reached with the UN watchdog will allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep watching Tehran’s nuclear activity.

So for more on this, let us bring in CBS News Foreign Correspondent Holly Williams. To sort of explain the state of play right now, Holly, so the previous administration pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal. And it’s put this current administration in a very interesting position moving forward. What’s going on right now?

Well, good morning. This is all part of an Iranian strategy aimed at the Biden administration trying to force the US to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and lift crippling economic sanctions. Now, former President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018, implementing a so-called maximum pressure campaign, piling more sanctions on Iran and even ordering the assassination of one of the country’s top generals.

But that policy appeared to backfire badly. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has reached at least 12 times what was allowed under the nuclear deal. And there’s now much more pressure on both sides. The US wants to stop Iran getting hold of material it could potentially use to develop nuclear weapons. And Iran desperately needs to breathe life into its economy.

President Biden has repeatedly said he wants to restore the deal. The US government has already begun communicating with Iran via a third party over at least five American hostages held by the country.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told “Face the Nation” Moderator Margaret Brennan that the US wants to put constraints on the country’s nuclear activities before the 2015 nuclear deal can be revived. This is a little bit of what he had to say.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Joe Biden is intent, determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Second, he believes that hard-headed, clear-eyed diplomacy is the best way to do that. And so he’s prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program. That offer still stands, because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it.

Iran has not yet responded. But what’s happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So it certainly seems that while both sides are certainly talking tough, there’s still room for communication. What do Iranian officials say needs to happen for the country to agree to reinstate the accord?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: Well, both sides are essentially saying, you go first. Iran is saying the US left the deal back in 2018. And so if it wants to rejoin the deal, the onus is on Washington to lift economic sanctions on Iran. The US, for its part, is saying it can rejoin the deal. But Iran has to go back into compliance with the terms of the original nuclear deal.

Now that’s obviously a stumbling block. But it’s not that dissimilar to the negotiating environment, if you will, when the deal was first agreed back in 2015. I think the bigger picture is this. Both sides have made it clear they want to rejoin the deal.

They’re saying so publicly. They’re saying so explicitly. But both sides also have domestic political constraints. And neither side can afford to look naive, can afford to look soft, because in doing so, they’ll give fodder to their domestic political opponents.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So there are obviously domestic concerns. But then within the region, there are always regional concerns. Whenever you sort of make a chess move in the Middle East, there’s a ripple effect. The Israeli government has raised concerns about the US opening discussions with Iran about returning to the nuclear deal. What is the concern for Israel?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So proponents of the original nuclear deal and rejoining the deal now say that this is the only way of successfully constraining Iran, that you have to use diplomacy, that you have to negotiate, that you have to try and build some kind of trust with the regime in Tehran.

But critics, and that includes Israel, which sees Iran as an existential threat, but also includes foreign policy hawks in the US, say that the Iran nuclear deal amounts to, essentially, appeasement of a very dangerous regime.

Now the problem for them is that the opposite course of action, former President Trump’s so-called Maximum Pressure Campaign, didn’t succeed. It didn’t force Iran to end its nuclear program. It didn’t bring about the collapse of the regime in Iran. And instead, it sparked a backlash that further destabilized the Middle East.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So Holly, you also mentioned that the US has opened communications with Iran about American hostages. What can you tell us about that?

HOLLY WILLIAMS: So what we know so far is that the US says that it has started communicating with Iran about those American hostages, apparently via third party or a third country. And for its part, Iran says that it’s received messages via the Swiss embassy in Tehran. So beyond that though, we don’t know much at this point.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Fingers crossed. Holly, thank you very much.

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