Nations Respond Cautiously to Iran-IAEA Discord

The United States and other nations offered measured statements in the wake of an unsuccessful effort this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency to resolve questions regarding Iran’s atomic activities (see GSN, Feb. 22).

A team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog conducted two days of meetings in Iran this week, the second such session in less than a month. The agency on Wednesday said Tehran had rebuffed its efforts to “reach agreement on a document facilitating the clarification of unresolved issues in connection with Iran’s nuclear program, particularly those relating to possible military dimensions.” The visitors were also not allowed to visit theParchin military installation, which is suspected of containing a reservoir for performing explosive detonations relevant to a nuclear-weapon effort.

“We regret the failure of Iran to reach an agreement with the IAEA,” Agence France-Presse quoted White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying on Wednesday. “It’s another demonstration of Iran’s refusal to abide by its international obligations.”

“It is disappointing, but we’re going to assess with our partners in P-5+1 as we move forward,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, referring to Germany and Washington’s fellow permanent U.N. Security Council members — China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom.

“I think it, again, just speaks to the need to move in a very cautious but coherent and deliberative fashion,” Toner added.

Iran has for years denied assertions that it is pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability. The Middle Eastern state held two rounds of talks with the six powers in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither meeting produced a breakthrough in the nuclear impasse. Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator last week delivered a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton indicating his nation’s readiness to resume discussions.

“We want to see negotiations move forward. There is that diplomatic track. But we’re not going to ease up on the sanctions,” Toner said.

The U.N. Security Council has issued four sanctions resolutions aimed at curbing Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts, which could be used to produce reactor fuel or nuclear-weapon material. Those penalties have been bolstered by unilateral actions by the United States and other nations, including a recent EU embargo on Iranian oil that is to go into full effect by July (Agence France-Presse I/The News, Feb. 22).

China on Thursday urged Iran to pursue additional discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Associated Press reported.

Tehran should seek to “clarify the relevant issues over Iran’s nuclear program and further restore the international community’s confidence in Iran’s plan on the peaceful use of nuclear power,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

The official, though, did not rebuke Iran for rejecting IAEA requests for access to key atomic personnel and records or its stand on the Parchin site (Associated Press I/Washington Post,Feb. 23).

Russia, meanwhile, on Wednesday advised against “hasty conclusions” regarding the situation between the U.N. agency and Iran, AP reported.

“We must not make hasty conclusions,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, expressing a desire for the nuclear agency to “continue contacts” with Tehran. He cautioned that an Israeli strike against Iran — a matter of increasing speculation in recent weeks — “would be a catastrophe not only for the region but for the whole system of international relations.”

The top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, also last week said it would be “premature” to use armed force against Iran. Without addressing timing, the Obama administration has repeatedly said military action remains among the options for dealing with the standoff..

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman emphasized that “the security of the citizens of Israel, the future of the state of Israel, this is the responsibility of the Israeli government. We will make the best decision for the Israeli interest” (Associated Press II/NPR, Feb. 22).

Separately, a U.S. think tank in a report issued on Thursday said “evidence obtained by the IAEA indicates that the Iranian revolutionary regime probably first made a decision to build nuclear weapons in the mid-to-late 1980s.”

The Institute for Science and International Security studied IAEA documents, government data, more than 1,600 telexes sent to foreign firms from the Iranian Physics Research Center and Sharif University and other material in preparing the report.

“The telexes, which mainly date to 1990-1993, do not reveal an extensive effort to research or develop nuclear weapons, commonly called nuclear weaponization,” the organization said. “However, some procurements or attempted procurements appear aimed at equipment or technology that would be a prerequisite for such work.”

The report says the Physics Research Center was formed in 1989 “as part of an effort to create an undeclared nuclear program.”

“Although Iran has admitted that the PHRC was related to the military and had a nuclear purpose in the area of defense preparedness and radiation detection, its actual nuclear role appears much more extensive,” the organization added.

While the Physics Research Center is no longer a stand-alone entity, “the new information … demonstrates the incompleteness and inadequacy of Iran’s declarations to the IAEA about its past and possibly ongoing military nuclear efforts” (Institute for Science and International Security report, Feb. 23).

The next IAEA safeguards report on Iran is expected to address the outcome of the latest visit and indications that the nation is moving to broaden operations at its subterranean uranium enrichment plant at Qum, Reuters reported.

“I think we will see a jump in the potential state of readiness of the facility,” said one diplomatic source in Vienna, Austria, which is home to the U.N. organization.

The facility is of particular concern to worried nations as it is both hardened against attack and is intended to be the primary location for enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Tehran says the material is needed for production of medical isotopes, but it would also be a step toward potential refinement of uranium to weapon-grade levels of roughly 90 percent. Western officials also note that Qum is designed to contain roughly 3,000 centrifuges, not enough for fueling nuclear power plants but sufficient for providing material that could be used in weapons.

“I’m not quite sure the Iranians understand they are playing with fire there,” according to a Western source.

The number of centrifuges at the site has increased significantly, according to recent reporting (see GSN, Feb. 7). More than 600 devices are operational, Reuters quoted diplomats as saying, and installation continues.

“They are working towards full installation,” according to a second envoy. “But they are not installed and ready to operate yet.”

The facility is likely to continue using existing systems rather than more advanced models, sources said.”I don’t have any indications that cascades of new machines are ready to be operated,” according to one (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Feb. 23).

In Tehran, a senior Iranian diplomat indicated that further talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency are expected, Agence France-Presse reported. An agency spokeswoman on Tuesday had said “there is no agreement on further discussions.”

“During the past two days, we raised technical and legal matters. Technical answers were provided to the agency’s questions,” state television quoted Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s envoy to the U.N. agency, as saying.

“This posture of cooperation and dialogue will continue, and we advise (the IAEA) to avoid perturbing the climate of cooperation,” he said. “Proposals were made” to resolve differences between the sides, “but to reach a final accord, we need more time. And we have agreed to continue discussions,” the envoy added (Agence France-Presse II/Straits Times, Feb. 23).

Issue specialists said Iran’s posture might be detrimental to its own interests, and could make powers China and Russia more amenable to leaning on the Middle Eastern state in hopes of seeing progress in resolving the atomic dispute, AFP reported.

“Diplomacy with Iran would be meaningful only if Iran would bring to the table evidence that it was cooperating with the IAEA,” said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.”That hasn’t happened after two IAEA visits to Iran.”

“China and Russia so far have refused to join the West in adding to sanctions,” Hibbs added. If IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano tells the agency Board of Governors that “Iran isn’t cooperating, China and Russia will be under pressure to take a more active role in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” he said.

However, Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute cautioned that “Russia and China will definitely see this as a setback, but it is not clear that this will necessarily get them on [the] side for more sanctions” in the Security Council (Agence France-Presse III/Zawya.com, Feb. 22).