Iran to start addressing IAEA concerns in nuclear probe
VIENNA: Iran agreed on Sunday to start addressing U.N. nuclear agency suspicions that it may have worked on designing an atomic weapon, a potential breakthrough in unblocking a long-stalled investigation into Tehran's disputed atomic activities.
The development – although limited for now – marked a step forward in an international push to settle a decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear work, which it says is peaceful but the West fears is aimed at developing a weapons capability.
The agreement could also send a positive signal to separate, high-stakes negotiations between Iran and six world powers which are due to start on February 18 in Vienna, aimed at reaching a broader diplomatic settlement with the Islamic state.
Efforts to end years of hostile rhetoric and confrontation that could otherwise trigger a new war in the Middle East gained momentum with last year's election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as new Iranian president on a platform to ease the country's international isolation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had agreed during talks in Tehran to take seven new practical measures within three months under a November transparency deal with the IAEA meant to help allay concern about the nuclear programme.
For the first time, one of them specifically dealt with an issue that is part of the U.N. nuclear agency's inquiry into what it calls the possible military dimensions to Iran's atomic activities. Iran has repeatedly denied any such ambitions.
It said Iran would provide "information and explanations for the agency to assess Iran's stated need or application for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators" – fast-functioning equipment that could be used for nuclear weapons.
Although such detonators have some non-nuclear uses, they can also help set off a nuclear explosive device.
"It is potentially an important first step" in resuming the IAEA's investigation, one Western diplomat said, adding that much more was needed to fully clarify its concerns.
Suggesting that more sensitive issues would have to wait a while longer, there was no mention in a joint IAEA-Iran statement of the agency's long-sought access to the Parchin military site, where it suspects explosives tests relevant for nuclear bombs may have been conducted a decade ago.
The IAEA has been investigating accusations for several years that Iran may have coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives and revamp a missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.
Iran says such claims are baseless and forged.
Other steps to be taken by Iran by May 15 include inspector access to the Saghand uranium mine, the Ardakan uranium ore concentration plant and updated design information about a research reactor the West fears could yield weapons material.
The IAEA, tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, says it needs such access and information to gain a better understanding about Iran's nuclear programme.
The Iran-IAEA talks are separate from, though still closely linked to, the wider diplomacy between Iran and the six world powers – the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.
Shortly after Tehran and the IAEA signed their cooperation accord on November 11, Iran and the powers struck an interim deal to curb its nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions easing, designed to buy time for talks on a long-term agreement.
The IAEA's investigation is focused on the question of whether Iran sought atomic bomb technology in the past and, if it did, to determine whether such work has since stopped.
The joint Iran-IAEA statement issued after the February 8-9 discussions said the two sides held "constructive technical meetings" and that Iran had implemented six previous, initial steps including access to two nuclear-related sites.
The IAEA had hoped to persuade Iran in the talks finally to start addressing its suspicions. Iran has rejected Western and Israeli accusations that is working to develop nuclear weapons as baseless and said it will cooperate with the IAEA to clear up any "ambiguities".
The issue of detonator development was mentioned in a document that the IAEA prepared in 2011 containing a trove of intelligence information about alleged activities by Iran that could be used in developing atomic arms.
"Given their possible application in a nuclear explosive device, and the fact that there are limited civilian and conventional military applications for such technology, Iran's development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern," the IAEA said in the 2011 document.
It said Iran had told the U.N. agency in 2008 that it had developed such detonators for civil and conventional military applications. "However, Iran has not explained to the agency its own need or application for such detonators," it said.