Reuters: Iran has allowed top U.N. nuclear monitors to visit an advanced centrifuge development site for the first time in a gesture of transparency about its disputed atomic drive, diplomats familiar with the matter said. By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has allowed top U.N. nuclear monitors to visit an advanced centrifuge development site for the first time in a gesture of transparency about its disputed atomic drive, diplomats familiar with the matter said.
One of the diplomats, close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the IAEA was nearing the end of an inquiry into Iran’s nuclear activity and cited concern a new big power move to increase sanctions on Tehran could hurt the process.
Six world powers agreed in Berlin on Tuesday to the outline of a new U.N. sanctions resolution although diplomats said the draft lacked punitive trade measures Washington had sought.
The West suspects Iran, which hid efforts to enrich uranium from the IAEA until 2003, suspect Iran’s declared quest for nuclear-generated energy is a front for bombmaking.
Iran denies this and has defied U.N. resolutions demanding a nuclear halt, instead expanding an underground enrichment plant.
After a rare Tehran visit by IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei on Jan. 11-12, the agency said Iran agreed to settle remaining questions in the long stalled inquiry within four weeks and also handed over some information about efforts to develop “a new generation” of centrifuges able to refine uranium much faster.
On Wednesday, diplomats familiar with IAEA-Iran relations told Reuters ElBaradei and his safeguards chief, Olli Heinonen, also visited a Tehran site where a centrifuge to replace Iran’s current outmoded, breakdown-prone model is being developed.
“This was a research and development lab for their new design of P-2 centrifuge that they were able to see,” the first diplomat said, in what was the first such visit since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disclosed the activity in 2006.
U.N. inspectors had long demanded such access under the IAEA’s Additional Protocol to assess how close Iran may be to mastering enrichment technology, and the scope of the current programme to verify it is not for illicit military ends.
But Iran stopped permitting wider-ranging inspections beyond its few declared nuclear production sites in 2006 in retaliation for big power moves to adopt initial sanctions then.
IAEA NEEDS REGULAR ACCESS
“This visit to this new R&D centrifuge lab is in effect implementing the Additional Protocol. Of course this (access) needs to be formalised by Iran but this was a voluntary measure on their part covered by the Protocol,” the diplomat said.
The diplomat, who like others asked not to be named in exchange for discussing politically sensitive and confidential information, said ElBaradei would detail his visit and results of the inquiry in a report due out around February 20.
But senior U.N. inspectors striving to wrap up the inquiry into Iran’s shadowy nuclear past are concerned that any broader sanctions resolution could prompt Iran to stonewall anew.
“The Iranian reaction will be interesting to this resolution. It certainly will not be helpful, and it might be detrimental for their cooperation in finishing up the (inquiry). We’re at a very delicate juncture,” the diplomat said.
“Very good progress has been made this month. The IAEA is in the very last stretch, focusing on the most sensitive issue, the alleged efforts to weaponise (nuclear material), and the involvement of the military.”
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) last month concluded Iran had stopped an active, covert nuclear arms drive in 2003 but was still striving to develop enrichment abilities that could be turned to warheads later.
A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA said the visit to the Tehran research site was not in itself significant since ElBaradei and Heinonen were not centrifuge technical experts.
A regular system of wider, snap inspections by agency experts would be crucial to defuse mistrust, the West says.
“Iran wants to present this gesture (visit) as a step forward so they can stave off more sanctions. It’s clear they won’t be able to do that,” the Western diplomat told Reuters.
“More broadly, Iran was supposed to come forward with final answers by end of December. They didn’t. The fact that they are continuing to play this game of dripping out information only goes to prove that they are not being up-front.”