Iran's top diplomat on Sunday said his country would permit a high-level delegation of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to travel to any Iranian atomic installation during a trip this week, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported (see GSN, Jan. 27).
"The IAEA officials will be allowed to inspect any nuclear site they request from us," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in remarks reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency.
The six-person U.N. nuclear watchdog group flew into Tehran on Sunday and began discussions aimed at resolving points of dispute over the country's past atomic activities. The delegation headed by IAEA safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts was expected to hold talks with senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi, but the content of the planned discussions was unclear.
It was uncertain if the IAEA officials would travel to atomic facilities or only speak with government representatives about indications that Iran's atomic efforts include military elements. The agency in November noted "serious concerns" that the Persian Gulf regional power was seeking a nuclear-weapon capacity; Tehran insists its atomic activities are strictly nonmilitary in nature (Deutsche Presse-Agentur/Monsters and Critics, Jan. 29; see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011).
"We are trying ... to resolve all the outstanding issues with Iran, in particular we hope that Iran will engage with us on our concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program," Reuters quoted Nackaerts as saying before leaving Vienna, Austria (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters I, Jan. 28).
Salehi minimized recent suggestions by Iranian officials that the nation could close the Strait of Hormuz, a key channel for the shipment of Middle Eastern petroleum, in retaliation to an embargo on oil exports, DPA reported. The European Union last week expanded a blacklist targeting Iran's disputed activities and finalized a six-month time line for prohibiting petroleum purchases from the Persian Gulf state.
"We have coordinated everything in advance, including inspection of nuclear sites, and are generally very optimistic about the outcome of the IAEA mission," he said to the Iranian Students' News Agency previously on Sunday.
The diplomat said his outlook for the U.N. trip was positive because Iran is open about its atomic efforts and has "nothing to hide."
Jalili intends in short order to send EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton a communication aimed at scheduling further atomic discussions, Salehi added. The five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany convened talks with Tehran on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving the dispute (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011; Deutsche Presse-Agentur).
The P-5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany) meeting will be successful because the other party is also interested in finding a solution,” Iran's Press TV quoted Salehi as saying (Press TV, Jan. 29).
Iran's Qum facility is a probable subject of in-person scrutiny by the IAEA officials, the Associated Press reported. Iran in early January said it had launched uranium enrichment operations at the fortified complex; the enrichment process can generate civilian material as well as bomb fuel (see GSN, Jan. 9; Ali Akbar Dareini, Associated Press/Google News, Jan. 29).
Salehi on Monday said the IAEA officials could remain in Iran for longer than anticipated if they wished, Agence France-Presse reported. "They are here for a three-day trip, and if they want, it (the mission) could be extended," he said in comments quoted by IRNA.
"No one has the right to tell us to halt enrichment," the foreign minister added. "Enrichment is our right based on the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and our being an official member of IAEA, and no one has the right to ask us to stop this legal activity."
Iran "fully adheres" to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's standards and would continue to practice atomic "transparency," he said (Agence France-Presse I/Times of Oman, Jan. 30).
All locations of concern are already under IAEA supervision, placing in question the value of a trip to any of the sites by the high-level U.N. team, DPA quoted atomic specialists as saying (Deutsche Presse-Agentur).
"The chances of the IAEA's success may depend on how badly Iran wants to avoid harder sanctions," Mark Hibbs, a nuclear specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in remarks quoted by Reuters.
Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, would seek a "significant step" by Tehran, such as providing details on the indications of nuclear-weapon activities or granting the U.N. agency additional auditing authority, according to Hibbs.
"I'm not very optimistic," the expert said. "Iran's track record is of appearing to cooperate whenever they are threatened by penalties."
Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared to indicate Tehran was not open to a major boost in cooperation with the U.N. organization.
"Iran's stance towards its nuclear issue has not changed in term of fundamentals and principles," ISNA quoted Velayati as saying. "One important principle is that Iran would not relinquish or withdraw from its peaceful nuclear activities" (Dahl, Reuters I).
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the U.N. delegation must conduct a "logical, professional and technical" operation to avoid repercussions, Reuters reported.
"This visit is a test for the IAEA. The route for further cooperation will be open if the team carries out its duties professionally," the former top nuclear negotiator said. "Otherwise, if the IAEA turns into a tool (for major powers to pressure Iran), then Iran will have no choice but to consider a new framework in its ties with the agency."
Separately, Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi indicated Tehran would "soon" end petroleum transfers to certain unidentified nations.
Iranian lawmakers, though, delayed taking up legislation to rapidly cut halt petroleum transfers to the European Union.
"No such draft bill has yet been drawn up and nothing has been submitted to the parliament. What exists is a notion by the deputies which is being seriously pursued to bring it to a conclusive end," Iran's Mehr News Agency quoted legislature energy panel spokesman Emad Hosseini as saying.
The planned legislation would halt Iranian petroleum exports to the 27 EU nations for between five and 15 years, the country's Fars News Agency quoted a legislator as saying (Hafezi/Mostafavi, Reuters II, Jan. 29).
Meanwhile, the United States is seeking to bolster the power of its Massive Ordnance Penetrator in light of test findings that the bunker-buster bomb might do insufficient damage to Iran's most hardened atomic sites in a potential strike, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday (see GSN, Nov. 16, 2011; Entous/Barnes, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 28).
"We were building a bomb to one level of depth deep inside a granite mountain and now we need to go even deeper. We have to have that conventional capability to deter them from doing anything that might precipitate a war," defense analyst Steve Ganyard told ABC News (Kerley/Katrandjian, ABC News, Jan. 28).
The Obama administration privately asked lawmakers for an additional $82 million to upgrade the bomb, the Journal reported; the Pentagon has already committed roughly $330 million to date for producing roughly 20 of the weapons. The additional funding is intended to improve the weapon's capacity to affect Iran's Qum facility and other protected sites.
"We're still trying to develop them," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of the weapons in an interview on Thursday. The existing bomb could inflict "a lot of damage" to subterranean Iranian atomic sites, but might not fully eliminate them, he said.
"We're developing it. I think we're pretty close, let's put it that way. But we're still working at it because these things are not easy to be able to make sure that they will do what we want them to," Panetta said. "But I'm confident, frankly, that we're going to have that capability and have it soon."
"It's not just aimed at Iran. Frankly, it's aimed at any enemy that decides to locate in some kind of impenetrable location. The goal here is to be able to get at any enemy, anywhere," he added.
Washington has alternatives to the bomb for curbing Iran's atomic efforts, a high-level Pentagon official said. "The Massive Ordnance Penetrators are by no means the only capability at our disposal to deal with potential nuclear threats in Iran," said the insider.
A second high-level U.S. official said the Defense Department could use its available MOP bombs as well as additional weapons to target the entryways of a hardened site, assuming it has comprehensive data on the locations of the passages.
A number of Defense Department analysts, though, have suggested only a nonstrategic nuclear bomb could total the Qum complex, the source added (Entous/Barnes, Wall Street Journal).
Iran would require between two and three years to construct a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, Panetta added in comments reported by The Hill.
“The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon,” the Pentagon chief told the CBS news program "60 Minutes" (Russell Berman, The Hill, Jan. 29).
In South Korea, the government on Monday requested additional time to secure alternate petroleum suppliers following the enactment of new U.S. measures targeting Iran's oil operations, AFP reported.
"Each nation has different circumstances ... so there are many factors to consider ... including what to do with existing contracts," South Korean Bahk Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan said. South Korea presently receives roughly one-tenth of its petroleum from Iran (Agence France-Presse II/AsiaOne News, Jan. 30).
A number of acting and retired U.S. government personnel said it is uncertain if harsh Western measures recently adopted against Iran would aid or undermine efforts to alter Tehran's atomic policies, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday.
"Some evidence" from remarks by Iranians suggests Tehran could feel pressed over the penalties, but such indications were scarce, said Colin Kahl, who served as a high level Middle East official at the Pentagon until December.
Prior efforts to limit the penalties to high-level officials and businessmen proved ineffective, he said: "They convinced the Iranian leadership that we were hostile to them, but they weren't enough to bring them to the table."
A high-level Treasury Department official said: "We have no interest in harming ordinary Iranians. But the responsibility for that [lies] clearly with the Iranian government, whose intransigence has led to greater diplomatic and economic isolation" (Richter/Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 29).
Turkey on Sunday said it would not observe recent EU sanctions targeting Iranian petroleum, ITAR-Tass reported (ITAR-Tass, Jan. 29).
Elsewhere, concerns are mounting that a nuclear-armed Iran would prompt Saudi Arabia to seek Pakistani assistance in establishing a nuclear deterrent, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday (Ben Doherty, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 30).
Iran's top diplomat on Sunday said his country would permit a high-level delegation of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to travel to any Iranian atomic installation during a trip this week, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.