Iran and United Nations atomic inspectors signed their first accord in six years, giving the monitors broader access to nuclear facilities in the Persian Gulf country.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran agreed “to implement practical measures” aiding inspections, and implementation will start within three months, agency director Yukiya Amano said at a televised briefing in Tehran. That includes access to Iran’s largest uranium mine, said Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the Islamic republic’s atomic program.
Amano told a group of reporters later that there’s “much more that needs to be done,” and said today’s agreement won’t enable visits to the Parchin military facility, where the IAEA wants to investigate whether Iran has carried out explosive testing related to making nuclear weapons. He said that will be addressed in “subsequent steps.”
The pact followed three days of talks in Geneva between Iran and world powers that failed to clinch a broader accord to relieve international sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iranian restrictions on its nuclear program. The IAEA’s decade-long investigation into alleged past nuclear-weapons work has underpinned international concerns about a program that has cast the specter of war and proliferation across the Middle East. Iran insists its atomic research is for peaceful uses.
Iran’s leaders have realized that in order to maintain the momentum of the political talks, “they need to re-energize the technical track with the IAEA,” Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “One cannot get entirely resolved without the other.”
Amano said the agreement allows inspectors greater access to a heavy-water facility at Arak. While the IAEA has visited Arak, inspectors have sought additional information on the design of the incomplete project to ensure plutonium cannot be extracted for nuclear weapons.
“Access to the design information is critical to resolve outstanding questions about the intended use of the reactor,” said former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley, who led investigations in Iraq. Reactor access, combined with information about its fuel, “could serve to verify that it is not being configured to make weapons-grade plutonium.”
Concerns over Arak helped to undermine an accord in Geneva, where French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sought a pause in construction during negotiations. Other top officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, had fueled speculation that an agreement was near after unexpectedly attending the discussions.
“The real significance of today is that the French objection is not derailing the process,” said Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at the University of Birmingham in England, in a phone interview.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters that the seven nations represented in Geneva were “on the same wavelength.” Negotiations resume Nov. 20, giving opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington time to lobby against an agreement. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no comment on today’s accord.
The deal with the IAEA, which already visits Iran’s 17 declared nuclear facilities, is the first since June 2007. Iran’s Gchine uranium mine, near the Persian Gulf coast city of Bandar Abbas, has expanded since then. Existing IAEA agreements with Iran don’t cover mining operations.
Iran has been using about 530 tons of uranium obtained from South Africa in 1982 to fuel its declared enrichment program, centered at the Natanz plant, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) south of Tehran. IAEA inspectors have long sought to establish whether Iran has an alternative fuel source for any hidden nuclear effort running in parallel with the declared program.
“Iran’s nuclear program has been constrained for years by a limited amount of uranium purchased abroad,” Kelley said. “Knowing domestic sources more accurately will help the IAEA draw conclusions.”