It "remains unclear" if the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to resume a probe into possible nuclear weapon-related experiments conducted by Iran, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said on Friday.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog last month indicated it had achieved progress in the latest of a series of meetings with Iran aimed at establishing ground rules for investigating possible military aspects of the country's atomic activities. The Vienna, Austria-based organization arranged to confer again on Jan. 16 with representatives from Tehran, which insists its nuclear program has no military component.
"Negotiating with Iran is quite a challenge," the Associated Press quoted Amano as saying. "A step forward doesn't necessarily lead to another step forward. After making a step forward, there could be two steps backward, or even three steps backward," Amano said.
"We don't know if we can resolve the remaining" issues, he said.
Amano said he wants "to peacefully resolve Iran's suspected atomic program through diplomatic effort" and "would like Iran to understand that cooperating with the IAEA is the best thing to do."
The official indicated he was not hopeful that Tehran would permit any IAEA audit of its Parchin facility, Reuters reported. His agency has linked the armed forces installation to a number of suspected sensitive studies.
Tehran's demand for documents justifying IAEA suspicions persists as an obstacle in efforts to hammer out investigation terms, according to Western envoys in Vienna. They added it is uncertain how the sides would put a potential probe agreement into practice.
Meanwhile, an unidentified Russian insider on Thursday said six major governments are tentatively slated to hold separate atomic discussions with Iran in Istanbul, Turkey, shortly before this month concludes, Agence France-Presse reported. Iranian diplomats held three high-level meetings last year with counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in an effort to address global fears that Tehran's nuclear program is intended to support development of an arms capacity.
The insider did not discuss the planned meeting's exact timing nor a possible time line for releasing details, RIA Novosti reported.
Failure to set a plan for when or where to resume discussions is cause for concern, Reuters quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying on Friday.
"This alarms us, because the pause has dragged on," Moscow's envoy to the talks said in an Interfax report. "As a nation and a member of the 'group of six' we are working actively to find a solution."
Separately, U.S. Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel was expressing harder-line views on Iran than previously following talks with Pentagon personnel over four days, government insiders told the New York Times on Thursday. It was unclear if the former lawmaker's changing stance was a bid to prepare for his Senate confirmation hearing or to better align his positions with President Obama's policies, or actually reflected an amended opinion, according to the newspaper.
Hagel “believes that his public record -- found in his statements and his writings -- has been mischaracterized," an Obama insider said. "Senator Hagel believes in engagement, but he is not soft on Iran."
Elsewhere, Spanish authorities have taken two individuals into custody on suspicion of attempting to send sensitive technology to Iran, the Associated Press reported on Friday. The Spanish Interior Ministry said 44 valves consisting of a material "particularly suitable for use in the nuclear industry" have also been confiscated, along with other equipment and documentation.
"The company, registered in the Basque Country, used false companies in the United Arab Emirates for the deliveries, channeling cash through banks in other countries," Reuters quoted the ministry as saying. It said the firm in question had done business with Iranian companies linked to the nation's atomic sector.