VIENNA, Austria (AP) – In major concessions to international demands, Iran has agreed to answer lingering questions about its nuclear experiments and will let U.N. inspectors return to a plutonium-producing reactor it is building, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday.
The decision to cooperate more fully with the U.N. nuclear agency appears designed to weaken a U.S. push for tough new Security Council sanctions over Iran’s nuclear activities, which Western countries suspect are cover for a weapons program.
Iran, which says it only wants peaceful nuclear energy, promised the concessions in a meeting this week between Iranian officials and a senior IAEA delegation, the agency said.
Iran also has scaled back its enrichment of uranium, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said Monday, although it is still refusing to freeze that enrichment, a key international demand.
Iran’s foreign minister said in a statement published in Tunisia’s Assabah newspaper that he was optimistic about international discussions on his country’s nuclear program and Iran had entered a “new phase” in its relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held talks Friday in Tunisia with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The IAEA has been concerned about indications that Iran could be pursuing a nuclear weapon, indications that include traces of enriched uranium found at a military site, and Iranian diagrams the IAEA has seen that explain how to form uranium metal into the shape of a warhead.
Iranian officials have refused to answer questions about those findings for years, leaving the IAEA unable to determine the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s refusal to cooperate prompted U.N. Security Council to become involved last year. The Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran over the nuclear standoff.
Access to the heavy-water research reactor outside the industrial city of Arak is key to any IAEA review of Iran’s nuclear activities, because the reactor will produce plutonium once completed sometime in the next decade.
The Security Council has demanded that Iran stop construction at the Arak project, as well as halting uranium enrichment, because both plutonium and enriched uranium can be used in the fissile core of a warhead.
Iranian officials and IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen agreed this week that agency inspectors would visit the Arak reactor by the end of July, the IAEA said. That concession follows an Iranian ban on such visits imposed earlier this year.
The two sides also agreed on how “to resolve remaining issues regarding Iran’s past plutonium experiments,” which include the traces of enriched uranium at the military site as “well as studies related to specified projects” – agency shorthand for nuclear work that could have military applications.
Iran has refused to answer questions about secret plutonium experiments in the mid-1990s and IAEA findings that Iran has not accounted for all the plutonium it has said it possessed. IAEA experts also want to know more about unexplained traces of plutonium and enriched uranium found last year at a nuclear waste facility, and about the so-called “Green Salt Project.”
Diplomats told The Associated Press last year that the agency was trying to follow up on U.S. intelligence that described the project as linking uranium enrichment-related experiments to nuclear-related high explosives and warhead design. Iran dismissed that intelligence as “based on false and fabricated documents.”
The IAEA and Iran also agreed that new inspectors would replace more than a dozen who were banned by Iran this year.
At Natanz, site of Iran’s enrichment program, IAEA inspectors have been allowed fairly broad access to approximately 2,000 centrifuges set up to spin uranium gas into enriched uranium. But the IAEA statement suggested Tehran was ready for more concessions there as well, saying a new meeting was planned in early August on “the finalization of the safeguards approach” – formal language for specific inspection and monitoring rights – at the facility.