VIENNA – Despite some remaining differences, a deal has been reached with Iran that will allow the U.N. nuclear agency to restart a long-stalled probe into suspicions that Tehran has secretly worked on developing nuclear arms, the U.N. nuclear chief said Tuesday.
The news from International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano, who returned from Tehran on Tuesday, comes just a day before Iran and six world powers meet in Baghdad for negotiations and could present a significant turning point in the heated dispute over Iran’s nuclear intentions. The six nations hope the talks will result in an agreement by the Islamic Republic to stop enriching uranium to a higher level that could be turned quickly into the fissile core of nuclear arms.
There was a possibility that the conference may be delayed by weather. A sand storm closed down Baghdad’s airport Tuesday.
Iran insists its nuclear program is only for power and medical applications, not weapons.
On Tuesday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Iranian scientists had inserted a domestically made fuel rod, which contains pellets of 20 percent enriched uranium, into the core of a research nuclear reactor in Tehran.
The advance would be another step in achieving proficiency in the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Iran said in January that it had produced the first nuclear fuel rod and that it had to find a way to make them because Western sanctions prohibit their purchase from foreign markets.
By compromising on the IAEA probe, Iranian negotiators in Baghdad could argue that the onus was now on the other side to show some flexibility and temper its demands. Although Amano’s trip and the talks in Baghdad are formally separate, Iran hopes progress with the IAEA can boost its chances today in pressing the U.S. and Europe to roll back sanctions that have hit Iran’s critical oil exports and blacklisted the country from international banking networks.
It was unclear, though, how far the results achieved by Amano would serve that purpose, with him returning without the two sides signing the deal, despite his upbeat comments.
After talks in Tehran between Amano and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, “the decision was made … to reach agreement” on the mechanics of giving the IAEA access to sites, scientists and documents it seeks to restart its probe,” Amano told reporters at the Vienna airport after his one-day trip to Tehran.
Amano said differences existed on “some details,” without elaborating but added that Jalili had assured him that these “will not be an obstacle to reach agreement.” He spoke of “an almost clean text” that will be signed soon, although he could not say when.
Western diplomats are skeptical of Iran’s willingness to open past and present activities to full perusal, believing it would only reveal what they suspect and Tehran denies – that the Islamic Republic has researched and developed components of a nuclear weapons program. They say that Tehran’s readiness to honor any agreement it has signed is the true test of its willingness to cooperate.
The United States is among those skeptics. In a statement released soon after Amano’s announcement, Robert A. Wood, America’s chief delegate to the nuclear agency, said Washington appreciated Amano’s efforts but remained “concerned by the urgent obligation for Iran to take concrete steps to cooperate fully with the verification efforts of the IAEA, based on IAEA verification practices.”
“We urge Iran to take this opportunity to resolve all outstanding concerns about the nature of its nuclear program,” said the statement. “Full and transparent cooperation with the IAEA is the first logical step.”
For the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – a main concern is Iran’s production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is far higher than needed for regular energy-producing reactors but used for one Iran says it needs for medical research. The U.S. and its allies fear the higher-enriched uranium could be quickly boosted to warhead-grade material.
U.S. officials have said Washington will not backpedal from its stance that Iran must fully halt uranium enrichment. But speculation is increasing that the priorities have shifted to block the 20 percent enrichment and perhaps allow Iran to maintain lower-level nuclear fuel production – at least for now.