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Iran Casts Nuclear Inspectors as Spies in Envoy’s Defiant Speech

Iran's IAEA Envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh
Iran's IAEA envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh, seen here, said, “The agency, which is supposed to be an international technical organization, is somehow playing the role of an intelligence agency.” Photographer: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

Iran pulled back from an announced deal to permit expanded international nuclear inspections and signaled it will take a hard line in the next round of negotiations over curtailing its nuclear activities.

Iran “will not permit our national security to be jeopardized” by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors working for Western intelligence agencies, the nation’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said yesterday. “Iran will never suspend its enrichment activities.”

Soltanieh contradicted IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano’s May 22 announcement after returning from talks in Tehran that a decision had been made to allow inspectors increased access. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili had only pledged his country’s “determination” to reach an accord, Soltanieh said at a press briefing in Vienna.

IAEA officials are scheduled to meet their Iranian counterparts on June 8 to attempt to conclude the deal for wider access to sites of suspected atomic weapons work, including the Parchin military complex. The outlook for those talks -- and for broader international negotiations scheduled for June 18-19 in Moscow -- was clouded by Soltanieh’s vow that Iran won’t suspend uranium enrichment, a key demand by the U.S. and Israel to avert threatened military strikes.

“Two weeks before the meeting in Moscow, Ambassador Soltanieh is showing Iran will be defiant,” Mark Hibbs, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear analyst, said in an interview in Vienna. “That’s not a good development.”

‘U.S. Hostility’

In Beijing, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that Iran has engaged in talks, “but recent behavior of western side of the nuclear negotiations has not been encouraging,” according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. “Western propaganda against Iran’s nuclear activities or China internal affairs has its roots in U.S. hostility toward the two countries.”

Soltanieh’s comments in Vienna came as the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors concluded its quarterly review of the country’s nuclear work. Iran, the No. 2 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Israeli Ambassador Ehud Azoulay accused Iran of a strategy of “deception, defiance and concealment” to move toward developing nuclear weapons, the Associated Press reported.

IAEA inspectors use intelligence received from member states to press Iran for answers on its program. The agency reported in November that it had “credible” intelligence pointing to Iranian work on a nuclear trigger at the Parchin complex. The country has subsequently cleaned-up the site, Amano said on June 4 at a press conference.

Violating Authority

Soltanieh accused the IAEA of violating its authority by seeking information on military and missile work as well as making public preliminary details of the country’s enrichment activities. Iran has been subject to more than 4,000 man-days of IAEA inspections, including about 100 surprise visits, since 2003, he said.

“The agency, which is supposed to be an international technical organization, is somehow playing the role of an intelligence agency,” he said.

While “optimistic” that a deal can still be struck with IAEA inspectors, Soltanieh didn’t support Amano’s assertion that a bargain was imminent. The UN atomic agency’s director reiterated at the June 4 press conference that Iran’s top negotiator gave assurances that the remaining differences between the country and inspectors could be bridged “quite soon.”

Expanded Inspections

The U.S. ambassador to the 154-nation organization, Robert Wood, said June 5 that he isn’t optimistic that Iran will agree to expanded inspections.

“We have all seen this movie many times before with Iran,” he said. “I certainly hope that an agreement is reached but I’m not certain Iran is ready.”

Amano’s comments, after his Tehran talks, were received by regional experts and the oil markets as a sign of easing tensions ahead of the second round of negotiations over Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities.

Diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. are scheduled to hold a third round of talks with their Iranian counterparts in Moscow on June 18-19.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that the first two rounds, in Istanbul and Baghdad, had advanced the negotiating process. The Moscow talks can’t be expected to yield a final agreement and should aim to pave the way for more discussions, he said.

Limited Time

Lavrov said that imposing new sanctions on Iran will upset efforts to strike an agreement over its disputed nuclear program. Iran is facing growing pressure from economic sanctions as well as from statements by Israeli leaders that their patience for diplomacy is limited as Iran continues to expand its stockpile of enriched uranium that could be converted to bomb fuel.

The U.S. and European Union have slapped financial sanctions on Iran and are pressuring nations to buy less of its oil. The EU is set to impose an embargo on Iranian oil on July 1, the kind of move that Lavrov called counterproductive.

“It’s in no one’s interests to go from a negotiating process to the forceful application of sanctions,” Lavrov told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “We view new sanctions as absolutely counterproductive. These sanctions will undermine our collective efforts.”

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