x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UN watchdog gains access to atomic site

Talks between Tehran and six world powers on nuclear inspections prove to be unexpectedly productive.

Journalists and security guards surround the vehicle transporting the head of the UN atomic watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, upon his arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport yesterday ahead of talks with Iranian atomic officials on the country's controversial nuclear programme.
Journalists and security guards surround the vehicle transporting the head of the UN atomic watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, upon his arrival at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport yesterday ahead of talks with Iranian atomic officials on the country's controversial nuclear programme.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran last night to arrange swift access for his inspectors to a recently disclosed uranium enrichment site after unexpectedly productive talks between Iran and six world powers. Iran's agreement to allow scrutiny of the facility was reached at Thursday's landmark meeting in Geneva. The international community has called for inspections within two weeks of the site, which is deeply etched into a heavily fortified Revolutionary Guards mountainside complex near Qom, a Shia holy city.

Thursday's meeting also resulted in a tentative but vital confidence-building measure under which Tehran would give up most of its declared stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia to be converted into material for a medical research reactor in Tehran, rendering the material unavailable for any bomb-making. Barack Obama, the US president, won more concessions from Iran in "72 hours than the former administration [of his predecessor, George W Bush] got in eight years of sabre-rattling", wrote Juan Cole, a Middle East expert and professor of history at the University of Michigan, on his blog, www.juancole.com. Thursday's meeting included the highest-level direct talks between the United States and Iran in nearly three decades.

In his first comments since the Geneva talks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, yesterday defended his country's "honesty" in its recent disclosure of the new nuclear plant, which pre-empted by just days revelations of its existence by western powers. Tehran's surprisingly sudden show of co-operation on the nuclear front eases tensions that had been mounting steadily between Iran and the West. The threat of further sanctions against the Islamic republic has receded, allowing time for more intensive talks to resolve the nuclear dispute through negotiations.

Yet mutual mistrust and suspicion remains. Even if inspectors visit the Qom site within two weeks, Iran will have had nearly a month since declaring the new facility on September 21 to conceal any possibly damaging evidence, analysts in the US media said yesterday. Many western officials also question whether Iran is playing for time and if it will follow through on tantalising promises it made "in principle" in Geneva.

Remarks by Mr Obama articulated Washington's mood of cautious optimism. "Taking the step of transferring its [Iran's] low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step towards building confidence that Iran's programme is in fact peaceful," he said. Iran now has a "path towards a better relationship" with the United States. But Mr Obama warned that the United States would not continue to negotiate indefinitely and that Iranian "pledges of co-operation must be fulfilled".

Iran's stockpile of 1.5 tonnes of low-enriched uranium is potentially enough to make one bomb if it is enriched to much higher levels. The removal of most of that stockpile from Iranian soil reduces Iran's ability to develop a weapon quickly, and should ease concerns, particularly in Israel, that time is running out for a diplomatic solution. US officials say experts will meet in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, on October 18 to work out the details of transferring most of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing.

In another positive sign, Iran will meet again before the end of the month with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council- US, Russia, China, Britain, France - and Germany, the so-called P5-plus-one. Russia is certain to have played a key role in cajoling Iran to be co-operative. Moscow signalled last week that it might back new sanctions against Iran if Tehran failed to budge on its nuclear programme in coming months. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has on several occasions attempted to resolve the nuclear dispute by offering to provide enriched uranium to Iran, or to jointly enrich it in Iran under Russian supervision. Tehran in turn acknowledged it would be willing to acquire some enriched uranium this way, but has always insisted on its right to enrich some of its own uranium. It was when Iran rejected Mr Putin's proposals in the past that Moscow supported UN Security Council sanctions against the Islamic republic, albeit after helping to dilute them.

US officials insist that the tentative deal to send much of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile is not intended as a template for a future solution: Washington's goal is for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities altogether, which Tehran insists will never happen. But, according to Gary Sick, a pre-eminent Iran scholar at Columbia University, the Geneva agreement establishes "the principle that Iranian enrichment could be conducted outside the country" while tacitly acknowledging "Iran's right to produce enriched uranium".

Writing in his blog (http://garysick.tumblr.com), Prof Sick said it would be a "mistake to think that the results of the Geneva talks were anything more than baby steps along a perilous and unpredictable path". But the process is "the only game in town. And it is off to a better start than any of us had the right to expect." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae