UN expects deal soon on Iran nuclear probe

The IAEA expects to reach a deal in January to resume a stalled nuclear probe on Iran.

The IAEA expects to reach a deal in January to resume a stalled nuclear probe on Iran. Picture: AFP.

VIENNA - The UN atomic agency failed to gain access to a military site in talks with Iran this week but expects to reach a deal in January to resume a stalled nuclear probe, the chief U.N. inspector said after returning from Tehran on Friday.

Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency was not allowed to see the Parchin complex during Thursday's visit to the Iranian capital, IAEA team leader Herman Nackaerts said progress had been made in the meeting.

World powers seeking to resolve a decade-old dispute over Iran's atomic activity and avert the threat of a new Middle East war closely watched the IAEA-Iran talks for any indication of Iranian readiness to finally start addressing their concerns.

U.S. ally Israel - believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal - has threatened military action if diplomacy and economic sanctions intended to halt Iran's uranium enrichment work do not resolve the standoff.

The IAEA and Iran, which denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop a capability to assemble nuclear weapons, will meet again on January 16, Nackaerts told reporters.

"We expect to finalise the structured approach and start implementing it then shortly after that," he said, referring to a framework agreement that would enable the IAEA to restart its investigation into suspected atomic bomb research in Iran.

"We had good meetings," Nackaerts added. "We were able to make progress."

Nackaerts did not give details on what had been achieved, but one stumbling block in previous meetings was Iran's request for access to intelligence documents at the basis of the U.N. agency's mounting suspicions.

The IAEA said also after talks in May that it expected an agreement soon, but that failed to materialise.

"We have now had so many false starts that there are grounds to be sceptical," said Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow and Middle East specialist at the Royal United Services Institute.

Western diplomats, who often accuse Iran of stonewalling and playing for time in its dealings with the IAEA, are likely to react cautiously and tell Tehran it must engage in substance on the agency's inquiry and immediately give it the access to sites, officials and documents it needs for its inquiry.

PARCHIN VISIT STILL "USEFUL"

"This appears to be a step forward but the devil is in details and most importantly in the implementation," Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said.

"There will likely be many in Washington and Israel sceptical that this preliminary agreement is anything but a delaying tactic on Iran's part," Pomper said.

Iran says its nuclear programme is a peaceful bid to generate electricity. But its refusal to curb activity which can have both civilian and military purposes and lack of openness with the IAEA have drawn increasingly tough Western sanctions.

The IAEA - which said before the trip it hoped to visit the Parchin site - was unable to go there this time but it would be part of the "structured approach" accord, Nackaerts said.

The Vienna-based U.N. agency believes Iran has conducted explosives tests with possible nuclear applications at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, and has repeatedly asked for access. Iran says Parchin is a conventional military site and has dismissed allegations that it has tried to clean up the site before any visit. It says it must first agree a framework deal with the IAEA before allowing access there.

Western diplomats say Iran has carried out extensive work at Parchin in the past year, including demolition of buildings and removal of soil, to cleanse it of any traces of illicit activity. The IAEA says a visit would still be useful.

Nackaerts' comments about progress made were in line with those made by Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, to Iranian media after the one-day meeting in Tehran.

The IAEA's meetings with Iran are separate from but closely linked to broader efforts by six world powers to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Analysts and diplomats say there is now a window of opportunity to make a renewed diplomatic push after last month's re-election of U.S. President Obama.

Senior European Union and Iranian diplomats on Wednesday discussed the timing of possible new talks between Iran and Britain, France, Germany, United States, Russia and China.

The powers want Iran to curb its uranium enrichment programme and cooperate fully with the IAEA. Iran wants the West to lift sanctions hurting its oil-dependent economy.