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U.N. and Iran plan new nuke meeting

by GEORGE JAHN Associated Press on August 28, 2013 10:00 AM

VIENNA — Iran and the U.N. nuclear agency have agreed to restart talks focused on the agency’s attempts to probe suspicions that Tehran worked on atomic weapons, diplomats said today, in the first such meeting since Iran’s hard-line president was replaced by a more moderate successor.

The diplomats told The Associated Press that the negotiations will resume Sept. 27, with the main focus on gaining access to a section of a military site that the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency has long tried to access.

Before the talks were suspended earlier this year, IAEA experts met Iranian negotiators 10 times over 18 months in futile efforts to start their probe of the area in question at the Parchin complex, southeast of Tehran. The agency suspects that the location was used by the Islamic Republic to test conventional explosive triggers for a nuclear blast. Iran denies working on atomic weapons at Parchin or anywhere else and said its nuclear program is peaceful.

With no new date announced for the resumption of broader nuclear talks between Iran and five world powers on hold, the meeting on Parchin will be the first test of centrist President Hasan Rouhani’s pledge to reduce confrontation with the international community over its atomic activities.

Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran blamed the IAEA for the standoff over Parchin, saying it is caused by the agency’s refusal to agree on strict parameters that would govern its probe. The agency in turn said such an agreement would tie its hands by putting limits on what it could look for and whom it could question. It bases its suspicions of nuclear-weapons research and development by Iran on its own research and intelligence from the U.S., Israel and other Iran critics.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told reporters earlier this year he was concerned about satellite images showing asphalt work, soil removal, and “possible dismantling of infrastructures” at Parchin. Iran said such activities are part of regular construction that has nothing to do with alleged attempts to cleanse the area of evidence. But Amano said that because of such activities, “it may no longer be possible to find anything even if we have access to the site.”

The two Vienna-based diplomats are experts on nuclear issues. They demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the date of the meeting before official announcements by the IAEA or Iran.

They spoke just hours ahead of the expected release of the latest IAEA report documenting advances of Iran’s nuclear program. The document will be closely watched for activities that the United States and other critics of Tehran say are meant to move Iran closer to the ability to make nuclear arms.

The diplomats said the report is expected to reveal that Iran has substantially increased the number of its centrifuges — the machines that spin uranium gas into the material that can be used either for reactor fuel or to arm warheads, depending on the level of enrichment. Iran has produced only fuel-grade enriched uranium. But that can be further enriched to weapons-grade material, and more centrifuges translate into increases in Iran’s enriched stockpile.

Concerns have increased since Iran started installing advanced centrifuges, whose enrichment rate is up to four times higher than the machines it is now using.

The last IAEA report in May said Tehran had installed close to 700 high-tech IR2-m centrifuges, without making moves to start them up. It also said Tehran had added hundreds of older-generation machines at its main enrichment site to bring the total number to more than 13,000.

One of the diplomats said that beyond increases in numbers, today’s report will be scrutinized to see if any of the modern machines had been put under vacuum — a prelude to operating them — since the May report. He said that — because the IR2’s are faster than the older machines — such a move would be of concern to nations worried that Iran is expanding its enrichment capacity because it wants to use the program to make weapons-grade uranium.

The report is also expected to outline advances in Iran’s construction of a reactor at Arak. The U.S., Israel and Iran’s other critics say the reactor, in central Iran, will be able to produce plutonium for several bombs a year once it starts up, within the next year or so.

The May report noted that much work needed to be done at the reactor site, but it said Iranian technicians there already had taken delivery of a huge reactor vessel to contain the facility’s fuel. It also detailed progress in Tehran’s plans to manufacture and test the fuel.

U.S. intelligence officials say they generally stand by a 2007 intelligence assessment that asserts Iran stopped comprehensive secret work on developing nuclear arms in 2003. But Britain, France, Germany, Israel and other U.S. allies think such activities have continued past that date. That view is shared by the IAEA, which said some isolated and sporadic activities may be ongoing.

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