VIENNA – A U.S. envoy challenged Iran on Tuesday to disprove suspicions it had worked to develop nuclear arms by throwing open a military site to U.N. inspection. He also urged Tehran to curb uranium enrichment, noting that — with further work — the material it has already amassed would be enough for use in several atomic bombs.
Robert Wood spoke to the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency as it turned its attention to Iran's nuclear program and concerns it could be turned into making weapons — a fear that has generated threats of military action from both Israel and the United States if diplomacy fails to persuade Tehran to compromise.
The IAEA late last month showed board members satellite photos that its officials and diplomats said seemed to show Iran moving earth and hosing down the insides of a building at its Parchin military site, southeast of Tehran. That, they said, has strengthened suspicions that Tehran is trying to cleanse the area of evidence of secret work on high explosives used to set off a nuclear charge.
Tehran has strenuously denied such experiments while refusing to let IAEA experts visit the facility for more than three months. Wood on Tuesday questioned its alleged actions and motives, saying "if Iran has nothing to hide, why deny the agency access and carry out these apparent cleanup efforts?"
Uranium enrichment is another concern. Tehran insists it has no nuclear arms aspirations, asserting that its program is geared only toward powering reactors and medical research. But international concerns are high because enriched uranium can arm nuclear warheads as well as make nuclear fuel material. The Islamic Republic has refused offers of nuclear fuel from abroad, further fuelling concern.
Beyond enrichment, IAEA suspicions that Iran has worked secretly to develop nuclear weapons are adding to fears about its nuclear intentions. Iran has denied such activity, saying the fears are based on evidence fabricated by the U.S., Israel and others, but has stonewalled the agency's attempts to probe the allegations for nearly five years.
The comments by Wood, the chief U.S. representative to the IAEA, came ahead of renewed twin-pronged efforts to persuade Iran to compromise.
Later this month in Moscow, six world powers will attempt to convince Tehran to stop enriching to higher levels that could be quickly turned into weapons-grade uranium at its Fordo facility, which is dug into a mountain and fortified against aerial attack. Before that, IAEA representatives plan to meet with an Iranian envoy in Vienna on Friday in attempts to prod the Islamic Republic into agreeing to reopen the agency's probe into the alleged secret weapons work.
With two recent rounds inconclusive, there were signs of edginess ahead of the Moscow talks, with Iran's state TV reporting Tuesday that the European Union had ignored a request for preparatory talks and an EU spokeswoman denying that was the case.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will convene the talks. The TV report said Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, had sent two letters requesting talks to one of her representatives about preparing an agenda for the Moscow meeting. But EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said without going into details that the EU had replied to Bagheri.
As a prelude to the other talks — between Iran and the nuclear agency — IAEA chief Yukiya Amano returned from Tehran late last month citing the Iranian side as guaranteeing that an agreement would be signed soon to relaunch his probe into the nuclear arms allegations. Wood, in comments to reporters, said Iran's "history does not make me optimistic about reaching an agreement," but challenged Iran "to fulfill its obligations and sign."
"We have all seen this movie many times before with Iran," he said, alluding to what Tehran's critics charge is foot-dragging on the part of the Islamic Republic to win time in developing its nuclear capacities.
In separate comments to the board, Wood noted that the tons of low enriched or nuclear fuel-grade uranium amassed by Iran are "enough for several nuclear weapons if further enriched to higher levels."
But his remarks focused even more urgently on Tehran's enrichment at Fordo, reflecting the concerns of the six powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — that higher-level enrichment being carried out there can be turned to weapons use more quickly than the main stockpile of low-enriched material being manufactured elsewhere.
Calling Iranian plans to expand production at Fordo "a serious provocation," Wood demanded "its immediate shutdown if we are to reduce the confidence deficit between Iran and the international community."