Simon Sturdee, AFP
Last updated: 4 March, 2012

Energy watchdog gropes for way around Iran impasse

The UN atomic agency’s board will be looking for a way out of its impasse with Iran after two fruitless visits probing Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons drive, in a meeting starting Monday.

In a report sent to International Atomic Energy Agency member states on February 24, watchdog chief Yukiya Amano said that after the two visits, on January 29-31 and February 20-21, “major differences” with Tehran remained.

“The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme,” Amano said. The report also said Iran had substantially boosted its uranium enrichment capacity.

The Islamic republic denied access to the Parchin military site near Tehran where a major IAEA report in November said suspicious high-explosives tests consistent with developing nuclear warheads were carried out, Amano said.

“It is very clear that Iran does not want the agency to go to Parchin because it has something to hide. It is worried about what the agency will find,” a senior Western envoy to the 153-nation IAEA in Vienna said.

A senior official familiar with the investigation said last week that the IAEA team was only able to speak to “middle men” and that the Iranians wanted to “constrain the process, and put us in a harness.”

Iranian officials repeated their assertion during the visits that the report, which has prompted Western countries to ramp up sanctions and raised speculation of Israeli plans for air strikes, was based on forgeries, the agency said.

What response the 35 nations currently on the board of governors make next week — the meeting is open-ended and could last until Friday — remains to be seen, however.

“Since the November report, the IAEA has not obtained enough significant new information about Iranian activities to justify additional pressure on Iran by governors,” said Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In particular, it is unclear whether Russia and China — traditionally more lenient on Iran than their Western UN Security Council partners — will support any resolution passed by the board condemning the Islamic republic.

In any case, beyond injecting what a second senior Western diplomat called “a deeper sense of urgency,” it is unclear how useful such a resolution — one in a long list — would be.

“The agency doesn’t have any other instruments within its toolbox, it can only operate with the tools it has under its mandate and under its statutes,” the Western envoy said on condition of anonymity.

Instead, what Amano would like is guidance on how to proceed, envoys said.

North Korea, meanwhile, alongside a review of progress in improving nuclear safety close to a year since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, will also be a talking point for the IAEA board.

On Wednesday, Washington announced that Pyongyang was ready to suspend its uranium enrichment programme along with nuclear and long-range missile tests, and that the isolated communist country would let IAEA inspectors monitor the deal.

Details are lacking, but it appears that since North Korea will not, for now anyway, be making a full return to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the IAEA will not have complete oversight over Pyongyang’s activities.

“Without any details about what Pyongyang and Washington agreed to there’s no confidence that the IAEA could do anything more than monitor a suspension of nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment,” Hibbs said.

“Independent of any agreement with the US, North Korea may continue to drive a hidden enrichment programme to which the IAEA would have no access.”