Reuters: The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief heads for Iran on Thursday to push for full transparency over its past and present atomic activity amid simmering U.S.-Iranian tensions after a naval incident in the Gulf. By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief heads for Iran on Thursday to push for full transparency over its past and present atomic activity amid simmering U.S.-Iranian tensions after a naval incident in the Gulf.
Keen to help resolve Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions without conflict, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei may try to capitalize on signs of improving Iranian cooperation with IAEA investigators.
A diplomat close to the IAEA said on Tuesday the inquiry, which Iran stonewalled for years until last August, had entered a crucial, final phase with Tehran addressing U.S. intelligence about past, covert attempts to “weaponize” atomic material.
In talks with Iranian leaders on Friday and Saturday, ElBaradei hoped to “develop ways and means to enhance and accelerate” steps to clarify the past and current scope of Iran’s nuclear efforts, an IAEA statement said.
An Iranian official said ElBaradei will meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
He was expected to seek an end to curbs on U.N. inspections, key to verifying Iran’s denials of any diversions of nuclear materials into bomb making, as well as press for rapid conclusion of the investigation into Iran’s past.
His trip coincides with a Middle East tour by President George W. Bush aimed largely at garnering Arab support to rein in Iran. Bush called Iran “a threat to world peace” on Wednesday, three days after Washington said Iranian boats harried U.S. naval forces in the Gulf.
Iran said its craft simply asked U.S. ships to identify themselves, and accused Washington of trying to stir up tension.
Tehran denies its declared program to generate energy from enriched uranium is a front for bomb-making. It condemns U.N. sanctions slapped on it for refusing to halt enrichment as illegal and has expanded a new centrifuge production plant.
SLOW TRANSPARENCY PROCESS
The Islamic Republic pledged in August to answer outstanding questions one by one about its nuclear history. But an end of year target mooted by ElBaradei for completing the process passed with the most sensitive issues still unresolved.
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued on December 3 said Iran had shelved a covert nuclear arms drive in 2003. This undercut the White House stance that Tehran was actively seeking a bomb and its campaign for tougher United Nations sanctions.
There is some Western concern the NIE took pressure off Iran to heed international demands for nuclear restraint.
Western diplomats said in late December that Iran seemed to be parrying the IAEA on final questions to do with militarizing enrichment work, and a related issue involving traces of highly-enriched, or bomb-grade, uranium found by inspectors on nuclear research equipment.
Diplomats close to the IAEA denied the suggestions of new obstruction. One said Iran had begun substantive talks with the IAEA on the intelligence about weaponization and this offered significant potential for wrapping up the inquiry.
Weaponization involves alleged administrative and research links between processing of uranium ore, testing high explosives and designing a missile warhead. Iran has denied any such links.
But for the West, getting Iran to suspend enrichment, a process that if perfected could also yield atom bombs, and permit wider, intrusive IAEA inspections are more urgent priorities than clarity on the historical issues.
“Delivery of the missing information regarding past activities is overdue and expected. So this will not earn Iran much credit,” a senior European diplomat told Reuters.
“Central to progress would be reversing the IAEA’s diminishing knowledge regarding Iran. This could only happen by allowing the IAEA more access (beyond) declared nuclear sites.”
(Additional reporting by Tehran bureau; Editing by Dominic Evans)