Iran hosts IAEA on nuclear standoff
UN atomic watchdog officials began a visit to Iran on Sunday to discuss Tehran's suspect nuclear drive, as Iranian lawmakers held off on retaliatory action against a looming EU oil embargo.
The three-day International Atomic Energy Agency mission is to address evidence suggesting Iran's activities include nuclear weapons research.
The visit was seen as a rare opportunity to maybe alleviate a building international showdown over Iran's nuclear programme that has seen a ratcheting up of sanctions and talk of possible Israeli military action.
"In particular we hope that Iran will engage with us on the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme," Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA's chief inspector leading the delegation, told reporters in Vienna as he left.
"We are looking forward to the start of a dialogue, a dialogue that is overdue since very long."
Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, called the visit a "test" for the UN agency, according to the website of the official IRIB state broadcaster.
If the IAEA officials were "professional," then "the path for cooperation will open up," he said.
"But if they deviate and become a tool (of the West), then the Islamic republic will be forced to reflect and consider a new framework" for cooperation, Larijani added.
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi welcomed the visit.
"I'm hopeful and very optimistic about this trip of the high delegation of the IAEA to Iran," he told reporters in Addis Ababa, where he was attending an African Union summit.
"Right from the beginning we have indicated explicitly, expressed explicitly, that Iran is never, ever after nuclear weapons," he said.
Iran, which maintains its programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes, is increasingly furious at Western measures aimed at making it halt uranium enrichment.
It has defiantly stepped up enrichment at a new bomb-proof bunker in Fordo near the Shiite holy city of Qom.
It has also reacted fiercely to new sanctions targeting its oil and finance sectors, notably the European Union's announcement of a ban on all Iranian oil imports within the next five months.
But Iranian lawmakers on Sunday delayed taking action on a proposed bill to immediately cut oil exports to Europe in retaliation for the EU embargo.
"No bill has been designed nor has it come to the parliament," energy commission spokesman Emad Hosseini told Mehr news agency, adding that he hoped negotiations on preparing the bill would be finalised before Friday.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Welt am Sonntag newspaper the EU was resolute on preventing Iran "acquiring an atomic weapon."
"We will find ways in the EU to compensate for delivery stoppages" of oil, he said.
Iran, OPEC's second-biggest producer, has repeatedly brandished threats to use oil as a weapon if it is backed up against the wall.
Officials have warned they could even close the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint at the entrance to the Gulf, in a move analysts say could send oil prices soaring by 50 percent.
Saudi Arabia has promised to make up for any shortfall should Iranian oil be curbed, but it too depends on the strait.
The United States, which has called any attempt to close the strait a "red line" not to be crossed, is reportedly planning to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East.
It already has two aircraft carrier groups in and near the Gulf, and has broadened arms deals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Against that backdrop of threat and counter-threat, attention is focused on what the IAEA talks might yield.
It was not known, however, whether the delegation would visit any of the sites mentioned in a November IAEA report suggesting Iran had worked on developing nuclear weapons.
The official IRNA news agency reported the mission would go to Fordo, but there was no IAEA confirmation.
Iran has signalled a willingness to resume talks with world powers but has yet to reply to a letter sent three months ago by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton offering a return to talks.
That reply would come "soon," Salehi said, IRNA reported on Sunday.
Observers note that while Iran is feeling the impact of Western sanctions, it shows no sign of halting its nuclear activities.
"Sanctions have not eliminated Iran's capacity or desire to continue developing its nuclear programme," said Dina Esfandiary, analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.