Iran and IAEA Say ‘Progress’ Made in Vienna Talks

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Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh has referred to the Vienna talks thus far as “fruitful.” (PressTV screen cap)As the Islamic Republic of Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded a round of talks in Vienna focusing on Tehran’s nuclear program and for signs of clandestine work on atomic weapons technology, both sides spoke of a “good exchange” with Iranian officials describing the meeting as having made “progress”. While neither side revealed the substance of their talks, both said that talks would resume on Monday; indicating that some common ground had been established after more than four years of stalled discussions.

As the United Nations’ chief nuclear watchdog group, officials from the IAEA had entered the talks with an agenda to put pressure on Iran to gain direct access to a site at Iran’s Parchin military facility that they suspect was used to test multipoint rapid explosives of the kind needed to set off a nuclear charge. Iran has strenuously denied that such testing has taken place but has repeatedly stonewalled IAEA requests over the past three months for immediate access. These requests have taken on a degree of gravitas after officials from the IAEA have suggested that Tehran had taken measures to clean up the site. Diplomats assert that the IAEA has concrete evidence in the form of satellite imagery showing what appears to be streams of water emanating from the building in question and of removal of bags from inside into waiting trucks

Last month, Tehran said that an IAEA inspection might be possible, but stipulated that “modalities” would have to be worked out prior to such a visit. Diplomats accredited to the IAEA and critical of Iran’s nuclear program have expressed concern that this is yet another attempt on Tehran’s part to buy time in order to “sanitize” the site of any signs of explosive testing.

Chief Iranian delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh indicated Iran has remained adamant in its insistence on a comprehensive plan on what sites could be visited by the IAEA and when. Speaking to the media, he said the talks resulted in “progress regarding the preparation of modalities of a framework for resolving our outstanding issues.” He spoke of a “fruitful discussion in a very conducive environment.” Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA Deputy Director General was more circumspect. He said the two sides had talked about “a number of options to take the agency verification process forward in a structured way.”

Saying that he entered the first round of talks on Monday with the objectives of seeking visitation to facilities where the IAEA suspected such shadowy nuclear development was ongoing, of conducting interviews with scientists that they believe have involvement in such projects and of looking at relevant documentation, Nackaerts also stated that the agency have been stymied by Iran’s consistent recalcitrance.
The Islamic Republic describes such allegations as fabrications, predicated on spurious evidence from the United States, Israel and their allies and says its nuclear program is exclusively geared toward producing energy. In a November 2011 report, the IAEA said the tests at Parchin were conducted in 2003 in a metal containment chamber that the Iranians covered by erecting a building over it.  Late last week, a computer-generated drawing provided to the Associated Press by an unnamed nation that is opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, reveals such a structure, with the official who shared it saying it was drawn based on information from an eyewitness.

Former IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen says the drawing comports with a photo he has seen that depicts the chamber, down to the matching colors.  A senior diplomat familiar with the IAEA probe says Iran has never acknowledged or denied the chamber’s existence. He requested anonymity because his information was privileged.

There is speculation that the much watched Vienna talks will lay the groundwork for next week’s critical meeting in Baghdad between Iran and the group known as the P5 plus 1 (The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany).  The New York Times has reported that on May 11th, EU Foreign Policy head Catherine Ashton said that she hoped “to achieve ‹the beginnings of the end”’ at the upcoming high stakes meeting.

Reuters has reported that British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the European Union wants proof that Iran is taking steps to reassure the international community it is not pursuing a military nuclear program and that if it fails to do so, the EU will consider further sanctions. “Now we wait to see some concrete steps and proposals from Iran,” Mr. Hague told reporters. “Without that, of course we have sanctions we have imposed. They will not only be enforced but, over time, intensified.”

Yesterday Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, countered this veiled threat by warning against putting pressure on Iran, saying such actions could scuttle the Baghdad talks. “The era of a pressure strategy is ended. Any strategic miscalculations would endanger success at the Baghdad negotiations,” he said, telling Western officials to refrain from making “unconstructive remarks,” according to Reuters.
Last week the Christian Science Monitor reported that Iran expects an easing of sanctions to accompany each of its concessions. One Iranian official said that Tehran’s “minimum expectation” is a lifting of sanctions. But, as the Monitor notes, reversing or easing sanctions is a slow, “conservative” process, and it’s unlikely that it could happen ahead of the Baghdad meeting.

Administration officials say that “sanctions relief is not on the table unless and until we see substantial concessions” from Iran, says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I don’t think there is really any give on the sanctions issue, in part because in a political year, an election year, with a Congress that is very solidly behind these sanctions, it would be very difficult for the president to appear to be waffling on them at all,” said Maloney.

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