IAEA chief says time running out to end Iran workshop standoff

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  • Standoff is most pressing issue in Iran, Grossi says
  • Workshop was victim of apparent attack, Iran blames Israel
  • IAEA has not been able to reinstall cameras there since
  • Issue complicates wider Iran nuclear talks starting Monday

VIENNA, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Time is running out for the U.N. atomic watchdog to gain access to re-install cameras at a centrifuge-parts workshop in Iran, as the agency will soon be unable to guarantee equipment is not being diverted to make atom bombs, its chief said on Wednesday.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi was speaking the day after a trip to Tehran in which he said he made no progress on several disputes, the most pressing of which is getting access to the workshop at the TESA Karaj complex two months after Iran promised to grant it.

The workshop makes parts for advanced centrifuges - machines that enrich uranium - and was the victim of apparent sabotage in June. Tehran blames Israel for what it says was an attack, which destroyed one of four IAEA cameras there. Iran later removed all the cameras and the destroyed camera's footage is missing.

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"We are close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge," Grossi told a news conference on the first day of a quarterly meeting of his agency's 35-nation Board of Governors.

That would mean there was a gap in IAEA monitoring of sensitive installations, during which a significant amount of material or equipment could be siphoned off to a secret nuclear weapons programme.

In a statement to the Board of Governors meeting, the United States said Iran should let the IAEA re-install cameras at Karaj "immediately" and that a continuing standoff over the issue would complicate efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major Western powers.

The IAEA has repeatedly said it has no indication that Iran has a secret weapons programme, and Iran insists its aims are peaceful. But Grossi said he still does not know whether Karaj is operational five months after the apparent attack.

"It is obvious that such a long period of time without us getting access, knowing whether there are operational activities ongoing, is something that in itself would at some point prevent me from continuing to say 'I have an idea of what is going on'," Grossi said.

'INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT'

Indirect talks between the United States and Iran are scheduled to resume in Vienna on Monday. The aim is to bring Iran and the United States back into full compliance with the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA lifted international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities, but little currently remains of the pact in practice.

Then-President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the agreement in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions, prompting Iran to progressively breach its restrictions and keep advancing its nuclear activities.

"Resumption of mutual compliance with the JCPOA will be increasingly difficult the longer the gap in continuity of knowledge regarding key JCPOA commitments," the U.S. statement said.

The United States and its European allies would normally pressure Iran on the issue by trying to pass a resolution against it at the Board of Governors, but diplomats say that will not happen this time for fear of jeopardising the wider JCPOA talks.

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Editing by John Irish, Alex Richardson and Paul Simao

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