Influential factions within the Iranian regime remain intent on acquiring at least the capability to develop atomic weapons, raising concerns that Tehran might continue to conceal parts of its nuclear program, diplomats and analysts here say.
The powerful Revolutionary Guards and military strategists are convinced that only a nuclear Iran can assume its place as a major regional power and adequately deter a possible attack from the United States or Israel, said the policy advisor to a senior conservative cleric, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials in the capital said the country's leaders were shocked by the tough deadline for disclosing atomic activities that the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency imposed in September and that they agreed to cooperate only because of the international community's united stance.
The questions about whether Iran intends to fully comply contrast with public statements by Iranian leaders that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons and with their promises to cooperate fully with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The issue of Iran's credibility is being considered at a meeting in Vienna of the 35 nations on the IAEA board of governors. The board is debating whether tough new measures are warranted against Tehran over past concealment of nuclear activities.
The United States is pushing to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, but a European-led faction on the IAEA board wants to give Iran more time to come clean.
The board met in Vienna on Thursday and will continue its discussions today. The director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, in comments to the opening session of the board, cited Iran's recent pledges to cooperate.
"The situation has changed significantly since the middle of last month, when a new chapter of implementation of safeguards in Iran seems to have begun, a chapter that is characterized by active cooperation and openness on the part of Iran," he said. He characterized it as a "good start," but added that the agency needed to stay the course on Iran to ensure compliance.
In a report leaked this month, the IAEA said that Iran had concealed elements of a potential nuclear weapons program for as long as 18 years. But the agency said that Iran had demonstrated a new openness and that its inspectors had found no proof of efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Some diplomats and analysts in Tehran, both foreign and Iranian, said they expected the regime to continue its covert weapons development program while making a commitment to open its facilities to inspections.
"The regime will pursue getting the know-how," said a prominent Iranian political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They'll stretch the letter of the agreements to the extent possible."
The recent IAEA report documents a series of attempts by Iran to conceal its nuclear activities, some as recently as last summer. In one instance, the government refused to allow inspectors access to a suburban Tehran complex until the facility, which the Iranians say is a watch factory, had undergone extensive renovations.
Renovations at the Kalaye Electric Co. included laying 3 feet of new concrete on the floors in what a European diplomat in Tehran called "a very transparent attempt to prevent inspectors from successfully discovering what had happened there previously."
Despite the effort, inspectors discovered traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium at Kalaye. Iranian authorities then admitted that they had conducted extensive enrichment tests there. They said, however, that machinery at the site was contaminated with enriched uranium when it was purchased overseas on the black market.
That discovery and others prompted the IAEA board in September to impose a tough deadline on Tehran, demanding that it permit more intrusive inspections and reveal all of its past nuclear activities by Oct. 31.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other senior officials were furious about the deadline, and some hard-liners called for the nation to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. However, the more moderate Foreign Ministry and Iran's representative to the IAEA lobbied in favor of complying.
A senior Iranian official said that in a crisis session of the Supreme National Security Council, the regime concluded that the international community was too united for Iran to sustain a policy of minimal, calibrated cooperation. The council's secretary, Hassan Rowhani, brokered a consensus that in the short term, fuller cooperation best served Iran's national interest, the senior official said.
"We should have accepted the additional protocol much earlier," Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi, referring to an agreement that would open Iranian facilities to broader IAEA inspections, said in an interview.
The debate in Tehran now centers on the extent of Iran's compliance with IAEA demands. Iran claims that its October agreement with the British, German and French foreign ministers to more fully cooperate brings it into full compliance with the agency's September resolution. In return, to remain in compliance, it is demanding an easing of international pressure, and the transfer of civilian nuclear technology.
"If the European side does not keep its word, all of Iran's commitments will be null and void," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, said three weeks ago.
Although they have no formal role in making foreign policy, the Revolutionary Guards and their supporters in the hard-line religious establishment wield enough power to act independently of the Foreign Ministry and other government departments.
The longer-term question is whether the regime is trying to acquire only the capability to develop nuclear weapons, or aiming to ultimately build one. Both goals enjoy backing in various quarters of Iran's fractured polity.
Analysts in Tehran say Iran's shift toward cooperation with the international community only postpones the debate over the regime's goal.
Moaveni reported from Tehran and Frantz from Istanbul, Turkey.