WSJ: Iran denied United Nations inspectors access to a suspected nuclear site, scientists and documents during a visit to Tehran this week, dimming already scant hopes for a breakthrough to end a standoff over Iran’s nuclear work, according to diplomats briefed on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s mission.
Wall Street Journal
By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON—Iran denied United Nations inspectors access to a suspected nuclear site, scientists and documents during a visit to Tehran this week, dimming already scant hopes for a breakthrough to end a standoff over Iran’s nuclear work, according to diplomats briefed on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s mission.
The IAEA said it will return a senior-level team to Iran later this month to try and build on three days of discussions that were held with senior Iranian officials, which ended Tuesday.
But U.S. and European officials are already voicing concerns that Tehran is seeking to use the dialogue to divide the international community and stave off additional financial penalties that are being crafted in Washington and the European Union.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Banking Committee approved a sanctions bill to further curb Iran’s access to high technology and munitions, intended to help cripple Tehran’s energy sector and the businesses of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military unit.
An amendment to the bill provides for possible sanctions against the management and ownership of the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift, which facilitates the flow of electronic financial transactions globally.
U.S. lawmakers are alleging that Swift has aided blacklisted Iranian banks in evading U.S. and EU sanctions, a charge the organization denies. “The measures…will further increase the pressure on Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and sponsorship of global terrorism,” said Tim Johnson (D., S.D.) chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
The Obama administration and the EU have significantly increased financial pressure in recent weeks, including decisions to put sanctions on Iran’s central bank and an embargo on Iranian oil shipments to Europe. Tehran has branded these measures as acts of war and threatened to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the sea route for oil shipments from the Persian Gulf.
The IAEA’s trip to Iran this week was led by the agency’s top nuclear inspector, Herman Nackaerts of Belgium. The visit was the U.N. watchdog agency’s first high-level mission to Tehran since it released a report in November that alleged Iran has sought to develop the technologies used in developing atomic weapons.
Iran, which denies it is working to develop nuclear weapons, rejected the report and said the IAEA’s conclusions were drawn from falsified documents.
The IAEA’s staff has been seeking to gain access to Iranian facilities suspected of conducting nuclear-weapons research, as well as to scientists and documents believed to be associated with this alleged clandestine work.
The U.N. agency specifically has been seeking to interview nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom the IAEA and U.S. government believe may be the lead Iranian official in organizing nuclear-weapons research.
Mr. Nackaerts also asked Iranian officials to visit a military facility just south of Tehran, called Parchin, but was denied, according to the officials briefed on the trip. The IAEA believes the facility may have housed a containment vessel used in conducting tests of the high explosives used in triggering a fissile reaction from the uranium metal used in a nuclear warhead, according to the agency’s November report.
“There is no indication that Iran offered substantive cooperation in terms of answering the IAEA’s questions” about military work, said a Western diplomat based at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna. “Iran seemed focused on modalities rather than substance.”
The IAEA has declined to disclose to the media the results from Mr. Nackaerts’ trip this week. The agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, said on Wednesday that the IAEA hopes the coming trip on Feb. 21-22 can further address its concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work.
The IAEA is scheduled to release a new report on the state of Iran’s nuclear program this month.
“The Agency is committed to intensifying dialogue,” said Mr. Amano. “It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues.
Iranian officials hailed the IAEA’s trip to Iran this week as opening a new chapter of cooperation between Tehran and the agency. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his government was ready to show its nuclear facilities to Mr. Nackaerts, but that the agency didn’t request such a visit.
Iran maintains that Parchin is solely a military facility, not one working on nuclear technologies.
“We had very good meetings and we planned to continue these negotiations,” Mr. Salehi told Iranian state media this week. “One step has been taken forward.”
The new financial penalties being pursued by the U.S. Congress could significantly increase tensions with Iran, and possibly disrupt global finance, according to Western diplomats.
The Swift financial system is used by virtually every major international bank and finance firm to send transactional data and messages via a secured network. Its board is made up of executives from some of the world’s leading banks.
U.S. lawmakers are charging that more than a dozen sanctioned Iranian entities have been using the facility to move money around the world in violation of international sanctions.
The new U.S. legislation could sanction the directors and shareholders of SWIFT if the organization “has not terminated the provision of financial communications services” to blacklisted Iranian firms within 90 days of President Barack Obama signing the bill into law, according to the new legislation.
SWIFT said in a statement on Thursday that it operates transparently and complies fully with all applicable sanctions laws in the jurisdictions in which it operates. It also noted it has cooperated with the U.S. and EU in combatting terrorist financing.
European governments, which have cooperated closely with the U.S. in sanctioning Iran, have voiced concerns about the targeting of Swift. They have noted in recent days that any action that disrupts the organization’s activities could harm the functioning of the global financial-payment system.
The White House on Thursday pledged to vigorously enforce financial penalties on Iran required by the Congress. But administration officials also said they were also seeking to safeguard the global economy and the interests of U.S. allies.
“We want to make sure that the implementation of those sanctions is handled in a way that does not inadvertently do any harm to our allies or to the oil markets,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.