UN inspectors to press Iran on military site access
VIENNA, May 14 — The UN atomic watchdog will press its demand for access to an Iranian military site in talks starting today that could influence the prospects for a broader diplomatic push to settle the decade-old stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The May 14-15 meeting in Vienna will test Iran’s readiness to address UN inspectors’ suspicions of military links to its nuclear programme, ahead of high-stakes talks in Baghdad next week between six world powers and the Islamic Republic.
The powers “would certainly take it as an encouraging sign” if Iran started to give credible answers to questions the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has about the nature of Tehran‘s nuclear work, a Western diplomat said.
But failure or success in Vienna “doesn’t necessarily predict” such an outcome at the meeting in the Iraqi capital on May 23, the envoy added.
Iran and the powers involved in nuclear diplomacy — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — revived negotiations in Istanbul last month after a 15-month hiatus and both sides say they hope for progress in Baghdad.
The resumption of diplomacy offers a chance to defuse soaring tension that has raised fear of a new Middle East war.
The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs although intelligence officials believe Tehran has not made a decision whether to actually build them.
The Islamic Republic, one of the world’s largest oil producers, says its atomic programme is a peaceful push to generate more electricity for a rapidly growing population.
Israel - widely believed to hold the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal - and the United States have not ruled out military action to prevent Iran from obtaining atomic bombs if negotiations fail to achieve this objective peacefully.
The IAEA wants Iranian officials to address questions raised in its report last year that revealed intelligence pointing to past and possibly ongoing research activity in Iran of use in developing the means and technologies needed to build atom arms.
Two previous meetings between Iran and the IAEA in Tehran early this year failed to make any notable progress.
The UN agency’s document published in November lent independent weight to Western allegations about Tehran’s nuclear agenda and helped pave the ground for a significant ratcheting up of US and European sanctions to block its oil exports.
Is Iran “washing” military site?
One finding in the report was information that Iran in 2000 had built a large containment chamber at Parchin — a military complex southeast of Tehran — in which to conduct high-explosives tests that the IAEA said are “strong indicators of possible (nuclear) weapon development”.
Iran has rejected the accusations as fabricated but so far has not granted repeated requests by the UN agency to visit the place. IAEA head Yukiya Amano says the issue is a “priority” for his team of senior officials in this week’s discussions.
Western diplomats say they suspect Iran may be cleaning the site to remove any incriminating evidence before inspectors can go there. A US security institute said last week satellite imagery showed activity at Parchin which it said raised concern that Iran may be “washing” the building the IAEA wants to see.
Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA has previously dismissed suspicions aired about Parchin as “childish” and “ridiculous.”
Iran has suggested that a broader agreement with the IAEA — which regularly monitors Iran’s declared nuclear sites — on how to address the agency’s outstanding questions must be reached before Tehran would consider letting inspectors into Parchin.
Western diplomats see such a formula as a stalling tactic and do not expect Iran to suddenly allow access to Parchin at the meeting today and tomorrow with a senior IAEA team led by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts.
“I would be very surprised,” one diplomat said, suggesting that the Islamic Republic would want to extract the maximum diplomatic benefit from any such concession.
Two prominent experts — Olli Heinonen and David Albright — said in a joint article that Iran must address at least part of the evidence of a past military nuclear programme to build confidence in talks about the future of its atomic activities.
“It is imperative Iran concretely signal its commitment not to build nuclear weapons. The most straightforward way for Iran to show such a commitment is to cooperate with the IAEA,” said former chief IAEA inspector Heinonen and Albright, head of the ISIS think-tank that published the satellite imagery last week.
At the Baghdad talks, the big powers will press for concrete confidence-building steps by Iran. They have not specified what those could be. But a Western priority is for Iran to halt the higher-grade uranium enrichment work it started two years ago and has since sharply expanded, thereby potentially shortening the time needed for any “breakout” of nuclear weapons.
Iran wants the meeting to yield a deal on an easing of sanctions, something the West will be reluctant to consider before seeing prior significant, substantive steps by Tehran to reduce concerns about a possible nuclear weapons agenda. — Reuters