Vienna: The head of the UN nuclear watchdog said on Friday he had “doubts” over a missing camera memory unit from a nuclear complex in Iran.
On Wednesday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran reached an agreement on replacing cameras the TESA nuclear complex in Karaj, west of Tehran, after they were damaged in a June attack Iran blames on Israel.
"There has been some technical progress in the last 24 hours, but this only takes us back nearer to where the talks stood in June," Britain, France and Germany said in a statement after the latest talks ended in Vienna.
"We are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation," they added, calling the latest pause requested by Tehran as "disappointing".
The talks - aimed at bringing the US back into the agreement, which it left in 2018, and Iran to roll back its stepped-up nuclear activities - started in April this year, but then stopped for several months as the Islamic republic elected a new hardline government.
The talks finally resumed in late November.
"We have made good progress this week," Tehran's chief negotiator Ali Bagheri said on Twitter on Friday before the meeting to take stock and adjourn the talks, adding they would continue "after a break of a few days".
EU and US diplomats had been more guarded in their comments with diplomats from Britain, France and Germany - all party to the deal - saying on Monday that "precious time" was being lost "dealing with new Iranian positions inconsistent" with the agreement.
Washington - which under then president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and reinstated sanctions on Iran - is indirectly participating in the talks.
The negotiations also include China and Russia, both parties to the agreement, which was meant to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Following the US pullout, Iran has taken successive steps to increase its nuclear activities.
However, in a press conference on Friday, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said no understanding had been reached with Iran over the issue of a missing data storage unit from one of the cameras.
Asked whether he thought it could have vanished in the June attack, Grossi replied: “We have doubts about that”.
“This is why we are asking them ‘Where is it?’ I’m hopeful that they are going to come up with an answer because it is very strange that it disappears,” Grossi said.
Wednesday’s deal came as international diplomats continue negotiations over the possible revival of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, with Western countries warning time is running out for the talks.
In February Iran began restricting some IAEA inspection activity as part of steps away from the 2015 deal.
Those were in retaliation for the United States unilaterally pulling out of the deal in 2018 and reimposing crippling sanctions on Tehran.
Agreements have been reached between Iran and the IAEA to mitigate the impact of the restrictions but the agency has repeatedly warned that Tehran is threatening its ability to monitor its nuclear programme.
Grossi admitted there was “concern” about losing surveillance data at Karaj but added: “We have ways to try to reconcile the facts on the ground with what Iran is going to be telling us”.
“Don’t forget this is a facility we know very well, we know the kind of equipment there is,” he said.
The IAEA’s experts would use “analysis, projections, modelling” to try “to put the jigsaw puzzle together”, he added.
For the rest of the cameras at Karaj, as well as at other sites where the IAEA’s activity has been restricted since February, Iran has said the footage will only be available to the IAEA once US sanctions are lifted.
How and when Iran could get sanctions relief is one of the topics being discussed at the Vienna talks.
On Thursday, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami said that Iran would inspect one of the cameras due to be installed at Karaj.
“An IAEA inspector will bring this new camera and explain its workings in the presence of our security and judiciary officials,” Eslami said according to the Nournews agency.
Suspicions have been raised in Iran that June’s attack could have been enabled by the hacking of the cameras.
Showing the reporters assembled at Friday’s press conference an example of one of the cameras, Grossi dismissed as “absurd” the idea that they could have been involved in the June incident.