UN experts have returned from Tehran empty-handed after two days of talks focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, narrowing the options for diplomacy amid fears of a military confrontation with Israel and the West.
In unusually frank comments, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was “disappointed” with Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to visit sensitive military sites amid widely-held suspicions that Tehran is building an atomic bomb.
In a defiant message to the Iranian people yesterday, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country’s spiritual leader, firmly restated the regime’s claim that its atomic programme is peaceful and that nuclear research would continue. In a televised speech that made no mention of the IAEA visit, he denounced nuclear weapons as “useless, harmful and dangerous.”
But the refusal to accommodate UN inspectors will fuel Western suspicions that the Iranian regime has something to hide, and play into Israel’s hands, which has lobbied for a pre-emptive air strike, arguing that Iran is nearing a “zone of immunity,” when its nuclear facilities will be moved into impregnable underground bunkers.
It will also dash hopes of an early renewal of negotiations with the West after Iran suggested that it was willing to bring “new initiatives” to the table, prompting cautious optimism in some circles.
Reflecting a growing sense of frustration, Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA’s chief inspector, was swift in his condemnation. Shortly after his plane touched down in Vienna early yesterday, he said that his team “could not find a way forward.” The UN watchdog drew particular attention to the refusal to grant access to Parchin, a site where Iran is believed to have facilities to test explosives for detonating a nuclear device. Tehran refused the IAEA access to the site on a previous visit three weeks ago.
“It is disappointing that Iran did not accept our request to visit Parchin during the first or second meetings,” Yukiya Amano, the IAEA’s director-general, said. “We engaged in constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached.”
The IAEA board is scheduled to meet next on 5 March, where it will consider a response. In a damning report last November, the body suggested that Iran had until quite recently pursued a nuclear weapons programme, claims that dramatically strengthened the resolve of Western powers to impose tougher sanctions, including an oil embargo scheduled to begin in July. The findings also heightened speculation that Israel could bomb Iran this year with Washington’s ability to restrain Israel weakened by election year considerations.
This week, a top military official vowed Iran would not sit quietly if Iran’s national interests were endangered, warning of pre-emptive action. Officials have also threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil shipping lane, and Iran last week halted oil exports to Britain and France – a largely symbolic move -- in retaliation for energy sanctions.
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