Iran to allow IAEA access
Iran’s decision to grant international inspectors greater access to a major nuclear facility was greeted Friday with skepticism as well as cautious hope among nonproliferation experts.
Under an agreement announced Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency again will be granted access to the heavy water reactor at Arak by the end of the month. The U.N. watchdog’s inspectors were barred this year from the remote facility in the mountains of western Iran.
Iran is at loggerheads with the United States and the United Nations over its nuclear program. Iranian officials contend that their country is developing nuclear technology only to meet its growing domestic energy needs and for other peaceful purposes. But governments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East fear that Iran is covertly building the infrastructure for the future production of atomic weapons and have imposed sanctions to pressure it to halt the activities.
Heavy water reactors such as the one at Arak produce isotopes that can be used in medicine and for other civilian purposes. But they also can produce plutonium, which can be used for the core of nuclear warheads.
The atomic agency also announced Friday that Iran had agreed on unspecified inspection “safeguards” for the nuclear fuel enrichment plant near Natanz and on a new roster of inspectors to enter the country.
The accord doesn’t address Tehran’s continued enrichment of uranium at Natanz, the main issue of contention with the international community and the reason the U.N. Security Council has imposed economic sanctions. A diplomat close to the inspection agency said the agreement might show a new willingness by the Iranians to be more transparent.
“It is not insignificant as long as the promises are kept,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
“It does go to the heart of the agency’s concerns with regard to the Iran file,” he said. “The caveat, of course, is that what is promised is delivered.”
Others complained that the latest deal not only didn’t go far enough to allay international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program but also provided Iran with a convenient bargaining chip to try to ward off further sanctions.
“The worry was that this would be a way for Iran to delay the Security Council from meeting,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. “It holds out the hope that Iran will resolve the issue through the IAEA, to delay further action.”
The agreement follows a meeting last month between IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and a rival to conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since the president’s election in 2005, observers say, Iran has taken a tougher line on the issue.
The latest deal could be a sign that the moderates are pushing back against hard-liners within Iran’s ruling elite, said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
“As soon as Ahmadinejad came in they began to restrict inspections to what was precisely required legally, then to trim down and argue over every issue,” he said. “The fact that they now may be opening access and going back in a more positive direction could represent the beginning of a shift of policy.”
The sprawling Arak site was one of two nuclear research areas whose existence was exposed in 2002 by an Iranian exile group.
Iran and the agency agreed to meet early next month to resolve questions regarding Tehran’s past plutonium experiments, another contentious issue.
In a statement last month, the agency expressed frustration over its inability “to resolve outstanding issues relevant to the nature and scope of Iran’s nuclear program” or confirm that Iran was not engaged in nuclear activities deemed illegal under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed.