TEHRAN: Senior U.N. inspectors arrived in Iran Monday to push for transparency about its disputed nuclear program, while several European states halted purchases of Iranian oil as part of Western moves to pile pressure on a defiant Tehran.
Iran denies Western accusations that it is covertly seeking the means to build nuclear weapons and has again vowed no nuclear retreat in recent weeks, but also voiced willingness to resume negotiations with world powers without preconditions.
The five-member International Atomic Energy Agency team, led by chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts, planned two days of meetings in another attempt to get answers from Iran regarding intelligence suggesting its declared civilian nuclear energy program is a facade for researching ways to make atom bombs.
Nackaerts said on departure from Vienna that he wanted “concrete results” from the talks. His delegation was expected to seek, among other things, to question Iranian nuclear scientists and visit the Parchin military base believed to have been used for high-explosive tests relevant to nuclear warheads.
But Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi dampened speculation about increased IAEA access when he told the student news agency ISNA that the agency officials would not be going to any nuclear sites. “No. Their work has just begun,” Salehi said.
Diplomats doubted that the talks would bring a breakthrough.
“I believe most are rather skeptical concerning the outcome because, well, Iran had a chance at the last meeting and didn’t seize it,” a senior Western official said, referring to the last trip by the senior IAEA team to Tehran at the end of January.
Referring to Iran’s announcements last week of new nuclear advances, he said: “They send out the wrong signals that Iran is really willing to cooperate ... We will wait and see what will come out of this meeting but we should be prepared that Iran might try some technical steps ... to appear cooperative without really providing the necessary cooperation.”
The outcome of the discussions will have diplomatic repercussions because it could either deepen a standoff that has stoked fears of war or provide scope to reduce tensions.
In a sign of Iranian concern about possible, last-resort airstrikes by archenemies Israel or the United States, Tehran Monday began a four-day military exercise in protecting its nuclear sites, according to Iranian media.
“[It] will practice coordination between the Revolutionary Guards and regular army and air defense units in establishing a defense umbrella over our vital centers, particularly nuclear facilities,” the labor news agency ILNA said.
The European Union enraged Tehran last month when it decided to slap a boycott on its oil from July 1. On Monday, the European Commission said Belgium, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands had already stopped buying Iranian oil, while Greece, Spain and Italy were cutting back on their purchases.
In retaliation for oil sanctions, Iran, the world’s fifth-largest crude exporter, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, conduit for a third of the world’s seaborne oil, and the United States signaled it would use force to keep it open.
Iran says its nuclear program is wholly peaceful but its refusal to curb uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military ends, while shifting a key part of it to a remote mountain bunker protected from airstrikes and continuing to restrict IAEA access, has raised suspicions.
The United States and Israel have not ruled out using force against Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to rein it in, and there has been intense public discussion in Israel about whether it should attack Iran to stop it “weaponizing” enrichment.
The top U.S. military officer said Sunday that a military strike would be premature as it remained unclear whether Tehran would put its nuclear capabilities to developing a bomb, saying he believed the Tehran government was a “rational actor.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said using force would be the wrong answer. “Attacking Iran militarily would only worsen the confrontation and lead to further upheaval in the region,” he said.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who also holds the intelligence portfolio, said the sanctions regime had been toughened to the point of causing “hysteria” in Iran.
“All this shows the pressure which this regime is under, but they have not yet decided to shut down their nuclear effort, so the struggle is on,” Meridor told reporters in occupied Jerusalem. “I think there is a chance of success [for sanctions] if they are done with determination, persistence and leadership.”
The West has expressed optimism at the prospect of new talks with Tehran, particularly after it sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last week promising to bring “new initiatives” to the table with six world powers without stating preconditions.
“In these negotiations, we are looking for a way out of Iran’s current nuclear issue so that both sides win,” Iranian TV quoted Foreign Minister Salehi as saying Sunday. The last round of talks collapsed in January last year.