DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. inspectors visited a uranium mine in Iran and reached agreement on how to monitor a planned reactor, part of an effort to allay fears about Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian media said on Wednesday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency experts were due to go to another nuclear-related site, the Ardakan uranium milling plant, on Wednesday after seeing the Saghand mine in central Iran on Tuesday. A spokesman for Vienna-based IAEA said the agency did not comment on its inspectors’ movements.
Western diplomats and analysts say it is important that Iran
grants inspectors access to such facilities, but it must do much more to address concern that it has tried to design a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such activity.
The IAEA’s discussions with Iran are separate from Tehran’s negotiations with six world powers on a broader settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute, but both sets of talks are aimed at ensuring that it does not develop atomic arms.
The United States says Iran’s readiness to tackle the IAEA’s questions will be central to the success of efforts to reach a long-term diplomatic accord, which Tehran and the powers aim to do by late July.
Iran wants an end to sanctions that are hurting its oil-dependent economy. After years of an increasingly hostile standoff with the West, last year’s election of the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president paved the way for a thaw.
Iran and IAEA agreed in November on a step-by-step process aimed at clearing up allegations that Tehran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability. The Islamic Republic says its nuclear program is a peaceful energy project.
The Saghand and Ardakan visits were among seven measures Iran has agreed to take by May 15, following six steps that were implemented during the previous three month-period. The IAEA regularly inspects nuclear sites in Iran, but not uranium mines.
The IAEA and Iran also reached agreement this week on how the U.N. agency would inspect the planned Arak research reactor, Iranian media said - another of the seven steps. The IAEA checks nuclear sites to make sure there is no diversion of material.
“Ways of monitoring Arak” were agreed, the official IRNA news agency quoted an unnamed Iranian nuclear official as saying late on Tuesday, without giving details.
The West fears the plant could yield plutonium for bombs once it is operational. Iran says it is a research reactor.
The future of the Arak site is also a key topic in the talks between Iran and the powers - the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia - but diplomats and experts say they believe a compromise on this issue is within reach.
Analysts say the measures implemented by Iran so far have been relatively easy. Things may become more difficult as the IAEA presses for answers on more sensitive issues.
“The additional access is another good step,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.
However, “it’s an easy step for Iran to take, since there is no suggestion of anything untoward happening there. So I wouldn’t say a big hurdle has been overcome,” Fitzpatrick said.
Once refined, uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, which is Iran’s stated aim. But it can also provide material for bombs if processed further.
Iran’s ISNA news agency this week said Iran has also submitted information to the IAEA about the development of fast-functioning detonators, which can be used to help set off an explosive atomic device but also have civilian applications.
While Western diplomats welcome Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA, they hope the next phase of issues to be addressed - which has yet to be agreed - will more directly focus on the IAEA’s long-stalled probe into alleged atomic bomb research.
The IAEA is expected to give information about its dealings with Iran in its next quarterly report on the country’s nuclear program, due later this month.
Editing by Larry King