Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog were in Iran yesterday, urgently pressing for a deal on addressing concerns about "possible military dimensions" to Tehran's atomic programme.
The seven-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived prepared if invited to inspect the Parchin military complex near the Iranian capital - if invited. The agency suspects Iran conducted test blasts there with nuclear applications until 2003 and possibly beyond.
The UN's nuclear watchdog also wants access to Iranian scientists and sensitive documents.
But even before the talks began between the IAEA represntatives and Iranian nuclear officials, Iranian media yesterday said the inspectors, led by the IAEA's deputy director, Herman Nackaerts, would not be given access to Parchin "for now". Tehran insisted it must first reach a framework deal with the IAEA for such visits.
The UN agency suspects Iran has been sanitising the site to remove any traces of illicit activity - a charge Tehran rejects as western propaganda.
Suspicion is mutual. Iran recently accused the IAEA of being infiltrated by hostile intelligence agencies, saying this undermined its role as an impartial organisation.
The United States last month warned that Iran must fully cooperate with the IAEA's investigation by March or face the prospect of being hauled before the UN Security Council for further action, possibly including new sanctions.
Yesterday's talks were closely monitored by six world powers preparing for the resumption in coming weeks of wider, critical nuclear negotiations with Iran following the re-election of Barack Obama, the US president.
Dealings between Iran and the so-called P5+1 - the US, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany - are separate from Tehran's negotiations with the IAEA, but the two tracks are closely related.
The first is concerned with Iran's current nuclear programme, the second with its past activities.
Iran, which insists its nuclear work is solely for peaceful purposes, has rejected allegations about Parchin as "childish" and "ridiculous", saying they are based on "fabricated documents" provided by hostile spy agencies.
Iran has barred international inspectors access to Parchin for four years, arguing it is a conventional military site, not a nuclear one, and therefore none of the IAEA's business. Tehran also has long demanded to see the agency's documents relating to Parchin.
In a possible bid to gain Iran's cooperation, the IAEA's director-general, Yukiya Amano, said last week his agency would share sensitive data with Iran "when appropriate".
Mojtaba Fathi, a political analyst for Tehran's pro-reform Bahar daily, said Iran might demand that any information from Parchin be kept confidential by the inspectors as a precondition for a possible visit.
A deal between Iran and the IAEA in itself would not be enough to allay international concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
The West's immediate aim is to get Iran to stop enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent, which is a short technological step from producing bomb-grade material. Iran says it is only doing so to provide medical isotopes for cancer patients.
The P5+1 hopes to persuade Iran to end this level of enrichment and ship abroad its stockpile of such material, but Tehran wants significant relief from choking, Western-imposed sanctions in return. Iran also demands acceptance of its right to continue enriching uranium to a lower level to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors.
The P5+1 are discussing possible changes to an offer rejected by Iran in their last round of talks in Moscow in June.
Russia, reportedly, has yet to agree to an "updated" package of proposals because it still does not offer Iran sufficient sanctions relief.
Meanwhile, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, suggested on Wednesday that some of his powerful hardline rivals - who have sidelined him on atomic policy — were reluctant to resolve the nuclear dispute.
"Our policy is cooperation with the IAEA," he said on Wednesday. "Of course some in Iran do not want the issue to be resolved and think it is better this way," he said, without elaborating.