UN team flies to inspect Iranian nuclear sites as tensions rise

Iran announces military exercise to protect atomic facilities ahead of Obama meeting with Israeli PM

Jerusalem

UN inspectors flew into Tehran yesterday as the White House
announced that President Obama would meet Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu on 5 March for what could be a key meeting on
deciding the strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear
programme.

Iran staged a show of readiness for any putative external attack yesterday when its military announced the start of a four-day exercise to underpin protection of its nuclear sites. Tehran also threatened to extend its partly symbolic oil embargo against Britain and France to other EU countries.

In the wake of low expectations expressed by some International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) diplomats that its inspectors would be allowed free access to nuclear facilities, the head of the IAEA's team, Herman Nackaerts, insisted he wanted "concrete results" from the latest two-day visit. But he admitted that real progress "may take a while".

The IAEA is hoping to question Iranian nuclear scientists and visit the Parchin military base, where high-explosive tests are thought to have been conducted.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's Foreign Minister, told ISNA, the country's student news agency, that the inspectors would not be inspecting any nuclear sites.

In a rare Chinese criticism of Iranian policy towards its mounting dispute with the West, Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to Iran's announcement on Sunday that it was halting oil exports to Britain and France by saying: "We have consistently upheld dialogue and negotiation as the way to resolve disputes between countries, and do not approve of exerting pressure or using confrontation to resolve issues."

The halt to sales of oil to Britain and France was intended as a pre-emptive retaliation for the boycott of Iranian oil which the EU has announced will be imposed from July. However, its impact may be limited since British and French oil purchases from Iran have already been severely reduced.

Tom Donilon, President Obama's National Security Adviser, left Jerusalem yesterday after two days of talks ahead of next month's Obama-Netanyahu meeting. He stressed the need for sanctions to be allowed to work before any issue of a military strike arose to curtail Iran's suspected ambition to build a nuclear weapon.

Dan Meridor, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, repeatedly emphasised at a meeting with foreign reporters his view that "there is a chance of success [for sanctions] if it they are done with determination, persistence and leadership". But he stressed he had no guarantees that it would do so and that it was still possible that Israel might have to "stand alone" against Iran's nuclear programme.

The New York Times, quoting former US defence officials, said Israel would face a "highly complex operation" to hit Iranian nuclear targets. The report said Israel would need to deploy at least 100 planes, and questioned whether its "bunker buster" bombs were powerful enough to penetrate Iran's underground nuclear facilities.

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