VIENNA (Reuters) – The UN atomic watchdog signalled on Monday it would press Tehran for access to a military facility where it suspects Iran has built a chamber for high-explosive tests that could serve to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran, which rejects Western accusations it seeks nuclear arms, has so far resisted requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the extensive Parchin complex southeast of Tehran. The issue was expected to be raised during a high-level May 14-15 meeting in Vienna between Iran and the IAEA.
“It is important now … that Iran let us have access to people, documents, information and sites,” IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts told reporters as he arrived for the talks at an Iranian diplomatic mission in Austria’s capital.
His team left the building after about five hours, declining any comment to media waiting outside. The meeting would resume on Tuesday, an IAEA spokeswoman said.
An IAEA report last November found Iran had built a large containment vessel in 2000 at the Parchin site in which to conduct tests that the U.N. agency said were “strong indicators of possible (nuclear) weapon development”.
It said a building was constructed “around a large cylindrical object”. A large earth berm between the building containing the cylinder and a neighboring building indicated the probable use of high explosives in the chamber.
The IAEA said it had obtained satellite images that were consistent with this information. The vessel was designed to contain the detonation of up to 70 kg of high explosives.
Israel – widely believed to hold the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal – and the United States have not ruled out military action to prevent Iran from obtaining atomic bombs if negotiations fail to achieve this peacefully.
Western diplomats say they suspect Iran is now cleaning the location to remove incriminating evidence. A U.S. security institute said last week satellite imagery showed activity there which it said raised concern that Iran may be “washing” the building the IAEA wants to see.
A Western diplomat told Reuters he had seen other images also suggesting a clean-up operation at Parchin, including a stream of water apparently coming from the building.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has dismissed the allegations, saying nuclear activities cannot be washed away.
But the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the Washington-based think-tank which published the satellite image last week, said this was incorrect.
“The concern is that washing could be incorporated into an effort to cleanse the building. The process could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly. This could be followed with new building materials and paint,” it said.
Nackaerts, head of the IAEA’s nuclear inspections worldwide, said Iran must now engage on substance with the agency in its investigation into Iran’s nuclear work, after several years of stonewalling.
The talks in Vienna will test Iran’s readiness to address U.N. inspectors’ suspicions of military dimensions to its nuclear program, ahead of talks on the program in Baghdad next week between Iran and six world powers.
Two previous rounds of talks in Tehran this year with U.N. inspectors failed to make any notable progress, especially on their request to go to Parchin.
“The aim … is to reach agreement on an approach to resolve all outstanding issues with Iran,” Nackaerts said. “In particular, clarification of the possible military dimensions remains our priority.”
Nackaerts did not name the sites, but IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said earlier this month that gaining access to Parchin would be the priority for the IAEA in the talks.
“Some IAEA officials see Tehran’s refusal of access as a challenge to the IAEA’s primacy in setting the agenda for inspections, and for that reason the IAEA will continue to request access to that site as a matter of principle,” said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Western diplomats will be watching the discussions for any sign that Iran is now ready to make concrete concessions, saying this would send a positive message ahead of the Baghdad talks.
Iran and the powers involved in nuclear diplomacy – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – revived negotiations in Istanbul last month after a 15-month hiatus and both sides say they hope for progress in Baghdad.
The resumption of diplomacy offers a chance to defuse tension that has led the United States and the European Union to try to block Iran’s oil exports through sanctions, and raised fears of a new Middle East war.
UK WARNS ON SANCTIONS
The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs, although intelligence officials believe Tehran has not made a decision whether to actually build them.
The Islamic Republic, one of the world’s largest oil producers, says its atomic program is a peaceful push to generate more electricity for a rapidly growing population.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the European Union wanted to see “concrete steps and proposals” from Iran.
“Without that, of course we have sanctions we have imposed. They will not only be enforced but, over time, intensified,” he told reporters before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
The IAEA has suggested that a broader agreement with the IAEA – which regularly monitors Iran’s declared nuclear sites – on how to address outstanding questions must be reached before it would consider letting inspectors into Parchin.
Western diplomats see this as a stalling tactic and do not expect Iran suddenly to allow access to Parchin.
A Western priority is for Iran to halt the higher-grade uranium enrichment work it started two years ago and has since expanded, potentially shortening the time needed to build a bomb. Iran wants the meeting to yield a deal on an easing of sanctions, something the West will be reluctant to consider before seeing substantive concessions.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, which are Iran’s stated aim, or provide material for bombs if processed further, which the West suspect is the country’s ultimate intention.