VIENNA — The U.N. nuclear agency is including two senior weapons experts on its next mission to Tehran in an unusually clear statement on the team's prime focus – wresting information from Iranian officials about suspicions the country has secretly worked on atomic arms.
Iran has flatly refused to discuss such allegations for more than three years, saying they were based on phony intelligence from the U.S. and others seeking to harm the Islamic Republic.
But diplomats on Friday told The Associated Press that the weapons experts were part of the U.N team and that Iran had accepted their inclusion after some initial resistance. That suggested that the Islamic Republic was being more conciliatory on the issue of secret weapons work than usual as the International Atomic Energy Agency mission prepares to fly from Vienna to Tehran Saturday.
All six diplomats interviewed said Tehran had not committed to discussing the issue. But three of them added that Iranian officials indicated openness to talking about all topics during the IAEA mission that ends early next week – a departure from standard reluctance by Tehran to exclude give-and-take on the arms allegations.
None of the diplomats expressed confidence of a breakthrough. But the Iranian stance at least allows the mission to have some home of making a dent into Iran's wall of silence about its alleged clandestine nuclear weapons work.
Any progress on the issue would be significant.
Tehran has blocked IAEA attempts for more than three years to follow up on U.S. and other intelligence alleging covert Iranian work on nuclear arms, dismissing the charges as baseless and insisting all its nuclear activities were peaceful and under IAEA purview.
Faced with Iranian stonewalling, the IAEA summarized its body of information in November, in a 13-page document drawing on 1,000 pages of intelligence. It stated then for the first time that some of the alleged experiments can have no other purpose than developing nuclear weapons.
Iran continues to deny the charges and no change in its position is expected during the Tehran talks with IAEA officials. But even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from outright refusal to talk about them.
The diplomats said that the IAEA team was looking for permission to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of weapons work, inspect documents relating to such suspected work and get commitments for future visits to sites linked to such allegations.
As most often the case, the IAEA team is headed by Herman Nackaerts, the chief agency official in charge of the Iran file – but the makeup of the rest of the team reflects the importance attached by the agency to the trip.
Two diplomats said Friday that nuclear weapons experts Jack Baute of France and Neville Whiting of Britain would accompany Nackaerts.
While both fulfill IAEA functions not directly related to nuclear arms research, they were connected to their nation's weapons programs before they came to the agency.
One of the diplomats – who is familiar with the thinking that went into setting up the mission – said their inclusion was meant to send a clear signal to the Iranians. He, like the five other diplomats, asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing privileged information,
Also on the team is Rafael Grossi, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano's right hand – another indication of the importance the agency has attached to the trip.
The three-day visit comes as anxiety grows daily about Iran's nuclear capacities – and what it plans to do with them.
Since the discovery in 2002 that Iran was secretly working on uranium enrichment, the nation has expanded that operation to the point where it has thousands of centrifuges churning out enriched material – the potential source of both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material.
Iran says it is enriching only to generate energy. But it has also started producing uranium at a higher level than its main stockpile – a move that would jump start the creation of highly enriched, weapons grade uranium, should it chose to go that route. And it is moving its higher-enriched operation into an underground bunker that it says is safe from attack.
Israel in particular is concerned by Iran's expanding enrichment capacities – and increasing evidence of secret nuclear weapons work.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday the world must quickly stop Iran from reaching the point where even a "surgical" military strike could not block it from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Amid fears that Israel is nearing a decision to attack Iran's nuclear program, Barak said tougher international sanctions are needed against Tehran's oil and banks so that "we all will know early enough whether the Iranians are ready to give up their nuclear weapons program."
The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, but veto-wielding Russia and China say they see no need for additional punitive measures. That has left the U.S. and the European Union to try to pressure other countries to follow their lead and impose even tougher sanctions.
"We are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear," Barak told reporters during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
"It seems to us to be urgent, because the Iranians are deliberately drifting into what we call an immunity zone where practically no surgical operation could block them," he said, alluding to increased Iranian efforts to move their enrichment work deep underground.
Separately at Davos, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged a resumption of dialogue between Western powers and Iran on the nuclear issue. He said Friday that Tehran must comply with Security Council resolutions and prove conclusively that its nuclear program is not directed at making arms.
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn
John Heilprin contributed to this report from Davos.