Iran’s refusal to let United Nations experts investigate allegations of illicit nuclear activities at a military base doesn’t inspire confidence for a return to negotiations with the international community, U.S. officials and nuclear-proliferation specialists said.
An International Atomic Energy Agency team visiting Tehran was denied access to the Parchin military base during two days of meetings that ended Feb. 21. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano expressed disappointment that the team “engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Iran’s refusal to allow access to sites where Western intelligence agencies have reported suspected nuclear weapons work “suggests that they have not changed their behavior.” It is “another demonstration of Iran’s refusal to abide by its international obligations,” he said yesterday.
The U.S. is consulting Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- the six nations that have labored for years in on-again, off-again talks with Iran -- over how to reengage. Last week, Iran sent a letter expressing readiness for talks at the “earliest opportunity.”
The “disappointing” outcome from the IAEA visit underscores the need to move in a “very cautious, but coherent and deliberative fashion,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.
President Barack Obama has said there is time for diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute and avoid a military confrontation. Still, senior officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said new talks must address concerns about possible nuclear weapons activities, rather than serve as a delaying tactic.
The U.S. and Israel haven’t ruled out air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, escalating tensions in a region that’s home to 54 percent of global oil reserves. Iran is OPEC’s second-biggest producer.
Oil rose for a fifth day yesterday, with futures for April delivery climbing 3 cents to $106.28 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since May 4. It was little changed in electronic trading as of 10:22 a.m. London time today.
“We’re just watching the Iranian story play out,” said Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York. “What occurs in the market will depend on the developments there.”
The IAEA has pursued questions about Iran’s activities at the Parchin base for much of the past decade. In a Nov. 8, 2011 report, the IAEA cited “information” provided by a member state and satellite-imagery analysis indicating Iran may have conducted high-explosives tests of components for a nuclear weapon at Parchin, 18 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Tehran. Because it isn’t a declared nuclear facility, inspectors need special authorization to visit the base, which the IAEA report said may house a test-blast chamber built in 2000.
After the IAEA raised questions in 2004 about suspect activities at Parchin, Iran allowed access to parts of the sprawling facility twice in 2005. The UN agency reported in 2006 that inspectors didn’t find anything.
‘Ocean of Mistrust’
“The agency visited the complex in 2005 but did not get to the specific building where these suspected experiments were going on,” Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said in an interview. “If Iran wants to prove it hasn’t carried out any nuclear weapons related activities, it would allow the agency the access it needs. The fact that it is not just helps to confirm suspicions about their misdeeds.”
The refusal to grant inspections at Parchin undermines hope for productive international talks, said analysts such as Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The IAEA’s failure to get access widens the ocean of mistrust between the West and Iran,” Sadjadpour said in an interview.
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian politics specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the latest IAEA visit evidence that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “sees no reason for engaging in a serious negotiation at this point because it would be seen as a sign of weakness should he be forced to do even a minor compromise.”
The ayatollah said in a statement yesterday that “Iran has never been after nuclear weapons and never will be.”
‘Harmful and Dangerous’
“The Islamic Republic considers possessing nuclear weapons, from an intellectual and religious point of view, as a big crime and believes it to be unnecessary, harmful and dangerous,” Khamenei said.
While Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research, Western intelligence agencies say there are numerous indications of military dimensions and weapons work.
The U.S. and EU have imposed a series of tightening energy, financial and trade sanctions over the last three months in an effort to force the regime to make concessions, such as halting domestic uranium enrichment and allowing unfettered inspections of military facilities, mines and workshops.
The risk of a military conflict was underscored when Mohammad Hejazi, deputy head of the general staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, was quoted on Feb. 21 by the state-run Fars news agency saying Iran might take preemptive action against enemies who intend to strike.
Playing for Time
In an interview in Moscow yesterday, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi contradicted Hejazi’s remarks, saying pre-emptive attacks are against Iran’s policy.
Tensions between Iran and Israel are escalating. Iranians arrested last week after blasts on a Bangkok street aimed to attack Israeli diplomats and the devices used were similar to earlier bombs targeting Israelis in India and Georgia, according to Thailand’s police chief, Priewphan Damaphong.
Iran “categorically rejects the allegations concerning any involvement of its officials or organs whatsoever in alleged recent terrorist operations against Israeli targets,” the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said in a Feb. 22 letter to the UN Security Council.
Ephraim Sneh, a retired Israeli general and former deputy defense minister, said in an interview that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities should be a “last resort.” Still, he thinks talks with the current Iranian regime are useless.
“All these attempts of engagement are futile; they allow the regime to gain time” and get closer to making a bomb, he said.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of a book on Obama’s diplomatic efforts on Iran, said Iran’s refusal to allow access to Parchin may also be an effort to take a hard-line position prior to new negotiations with the U.S., Europeans, China and Russia.
“It’s exactly the same pattern we’ve seen before,” he said in an interview. In 2009, before the last negotiations with the international community, Iran tested missiles and revealed a secret underground nuclear site at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
“Parchin remains unfinished business,” said David Albright, a physicist and former weapons inspector who is founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “Newer information provided to the IAEA suggests that an indoor explosive test facility at Parchin could have been used to test important subcomponents of a nuclear weapon.”
If the inspection had occurred, Albright said, the IAEA could have claimed a concrete result, which might have lowered tensions going into new talks.
The IAEA has cameras installed and conducts routine as well as unannounced visits at all of Iran’s declared nuclear sites, including Fordo and Natanz enrichment centers, the reactors in Bushehr and Tehran, and a uranium metallurgical laboratory in Isfahan. Inspectors regularly measure Iran’s declared nuclear material, and the IAEA has verified Iran hasn’t diverted those existing uranium stockpiles to weapons use.