A team of UN nuclear inspectors has arrived in Tehran for what analysts describe as make-or-break talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, which could either defuse or escalate the looming crisis in the Gulf.
The outcome of the two-day visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be closely scrutinised around the world at a time of rising military tensions and tit-for-tat oil embargoes between Iran and the west.
The IAEA is due to deliver its latest report on Iran within the next fortnight. If it concludes that Tehran is being cooperative, it will help prepare the ground for broader talks between the Iranian government and a six-nation group of major powers (known as the P5+1 and comprising the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) on Iran’s nuclear future.
Progress in those negotiations would in turn go a long way to defusing growing tensions in the Gulf and could put off the imposition of an EU oil embargo against Iran, currently due to take effect on July 1.
If the IAEA delivers a negative report, there would be a move in the agency’s board of member states to have Iran referred once more to the UN security council for further punitive measures.
‘Make or break’
It would sour the atmosphere for substantial negotiations with the international community, if not stall them altogether. A report saying that Tehran was not being forthcoming on past weapons research would also fuel pressure from hawks in Israel and the US for military action.
“This is a make-or-break situation,” said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Iranians have to understand the language of the IAEA report will be critical to the views of the P5+1powers and the non-aligned countries. If it says Iran did not co-operate, Iran will be isolated in the boardroom. It will be much more difficult for Russia and China to veto further sanctions.”
Iranian radio reported that the inspectors, led by the IAEA deputy director general, Herman Nackaerts, had asked to talk to Iranian nuclear scientists and to visit a military site at Parchin, which was described in the last IAEA report on Iran in November as a suspected testing ground for nuclear weapons components. Iran denies it has ever carried out research or development on nuclear weapons and insists its programme is for entirely peaceful purposes.
Western diplomats agree that the readiness of the Tehran authorities to allow Nackaerts and his inspectors to visit Parchin and interview scientists like Mohsen Fahkrizadeh – described in IAEA reports as a central figures in a weapons research programme until it was disbanded in 2003 – will be a critical test of Iran’s co-operation.
During Nackaert’s initial mission to Tehran last month, Iranian officials did not respond to his requests to visit Parchin, or to his proposal to carry out interviews. Instead, on the night before the IAEA team’s departure, they presented their own proposal work plan, which did not address the agency’s inquiries.
Right to ‘peaceful’ nuclear energy
Under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to which Tehran is a signatory, Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy programme, but six UN security council resolutions have demanded it suspend uranium enrichment (which can produce both fuel for power reactors and for a bomb) until it can reassure the international community of its peaceful intentions.
Consultations are the underway this week among senior diplomats from the P5+1 group over how to respond to an Iranian letter last week offering to resume negotiations that broke down in Istanbul more than a year ago.
Since Istanbul, western diplomats said that Tehran has maintained a set of preconditions for restarting discussions, demanding that all UN sanctions are lifted beforehand and that the nuclear programme is off the negotiating table, which were unacceptable to the international community.
It is not clear that last week’s letter, from Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, signified that those preconditions had now been dropped. Ashton’s office is likely to be asked to seek clarification on the issue before a new set of negotiations is agreed.
‘Open to negotiations’
“No one has rejected the letter. Everyone is open to new negotiations, but some of the ambiguities have to be bottomed out before we go forward,” said a diplomat from the six-nation group.
If the current IAEA visit fails to win Iranian co-operation, the spotlight will again be on the agency’s director-general, Yukiya Amano. He was criticised by Iran, Russia and China for publishing the November report, in which the IAEA judged intelligence pointing to past Iranian work on making nuclear warheads to be credible.
Hibbs argues that the biggest different between Amano and his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, is that Amano has not sought to overrule the views of his inspectors.
“ElBaradei’s approach was conditioned by concern that the Americans who were then in Iraq, could turn 90 degrees and invade Iran,” he said.
“The US now is not in a position to think about war on that scale. Amano for his part has a more confined view on what the agency’s mandate is. He does not inject himself into the negotiations.” —