Diplomats the United Nations and in Western capitals were cautiously hopeful last night that a new agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran on the oversight of its nuclear facilities may signal the start of a thaw in the long-running confrontation over its enrichment programmes.
Days before the planned release of a new IAEA report that is expected to be highly critical of the Iranian government for failing to co-operate with inspectors, Tehran has made two potentially significant concessions including a green light for them to resume visits to a heavy water reactor near the city of Arak.
Sources in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, also told news agencies that the Iranian authorities simultaneously agreed to amend working practices at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility to give agency cameras a better view of what is happening on the centrifuge floor where the enrichment happens.
But an official in the Obama administration cautioned against excessive optimism. "Iran is still not in compliance with its IAEA obligations and is not providing... full and comprehensive co-operation," he said, on condition of anonymity.
At a key meeting on 2 September, the US, Britain, France and Germany are expected to urge Russia and China to agree to the possibility of yet another round of stringent UN sanctions. The new report from the IAEA will form the basis of those talks.
President Barack Obama has warned that he expects Iran, which is just coming out of the tumult of its contested presidential elections, to offer evidence by mid-September that it is indeed pursuing enrichment for energy-generating reasons alone, as it claims, and not with weaponisation in mind. If he is not satisfied, he will use a G20 summit in Pittsburgh on 24 September to demand new sanctions. "We must welcome every effort from Iran because we have been asking them to co-operate with the IAEA and they have not been doing so," one European diplomat said of the new gestures. Another diplomatic source was less sure of the significance. "Look at it in context. Iran stonewalls for a year and then allows access right before the IAEA is to issue its report," he said.
After coming to office, Mr Obama made clear overtures to Iran to repair relations on condition that it took steps to ending the nuclear dispute. While the confusion of the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has complicated that strategy severely, the White House still considers the dossier urgent, particularly because pressure may grow inside Israel to launch a military strike against the country.
Interpreting the intentions of Tehran remains a vexing exercise. Meanwhile, the new head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, is being seen by Western analysts as a moderate who might favour resolving the stand-off as soon as possible. Iran barred IAEA inspectors from the not-yet- completed Arak heavy water plant a year ago, insisting that it was for agricultural research and for the production of medical isotopes. Meanwhile, the IAEA had long complained that it was unable properly to use its cameras at Natanz.Reuse content