UN nuclear agency asks Iran about suspected weapons activities
The UN nuclear agency and Tehran held new talks on Saturday on allegations of past Iranian weapons work and on additional safeguards to allay international concerns over its nuclear ambitions.
The day-long discussions with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will build on a framework deal agreed in November that required Tehran to take six practical steps by next Tuesday.
With completion of those measures -- including a visit to the heavy water plant at the unfinished Arak reactor -- talks on "more difficult things" are expected to begin, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has said.
A team of IAEA experts led by chief inspector Tero Varjoranta arrived in Tehran late Friday to assess the implementation of those measures, Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said.
That assessment will decide the scope of future cooperation, he said, expressing the hope that "the agency's doubts have been removed".
The experts met nuclear officials led by Iran's IAEA envoy Reza Najafi, Kamalvandi said in remarks reported by the official IRNA news agency.
The talks could be extended if there is major progress, media reports said.
The six-step deal was struck on November 11 after two years and nearly a dozen rounds of talks.
It is separate to the landmark nuclear agreement also reached in November with world powers that has placed temporary curbs on Iran's nuclear activities.
Implementation began on December 8 when IAEA inspectors visited Arak, where the small unfinished heavy water reactor has been hit by delays.
The site -- which Iran insists is an integral part of its nuclear programme for mainly research purposes -- is of international concern because Tehran could theoretically extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel if it also builds a reprocessing facility.
Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi said this week the reactor could be modified to produce less plutonium to "allay the worries".
The Islamic republic's nuclear activities have been in the international spotlight for more than a decade over suspicions in the West and Israel that they mask military objectives, despite repeated denials.
The IAEA is focusing on past work to clear allegations that before 2003, and possibly since, Iran's nuclear drive had "possible military dimensions".
Tehran denies now or ever seeking nuclear weapons, claiming that such allegations are based on faulty intelligence.
Amano said in an exclusive interview last month that the time is now ripe to ask Iran "more difficult" questions.
"We started with measures that are practical and easy to implement, and then we move on to more difficult things," he said.
"We certainly wish to include issues with 'possible military dimensions' in future steps."
How long this takes "very much depends on Iran. It can be quick or it can be long. It really depends on their cooperation."
Another topic for discussion is access to the Parchin military facility where the agency suspects Tehran may have experimented with atomic weapons development research.
The UN nuclear watchdog has sought in vain for years to inspect the facility.
The IAEA talks are running in parallel with diplomatic efforts by the so-called P5+1 group of world powers negotiating for a comprehensive accord with Iran that would resolve the impasse over its nuclear work once and for all.
Full cooperation with the IAEA is a key demand of world powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France as well as Germany -- in that process.
Under an interim deal with the P5+1 agreed on November 24, Iran has stopped enriching uranium to medium levels and is converting its current stockpile into a form much more difficult to process into weapons-grade material.
In exchange, Tehran has received limited relief from punishing sanctions.
Verification of the agreed measures is delegated to the IAEA, forcing the agency to double the number of its inspectors and increase the frequency of its visits to Iranian nuclear facilities.