Team of IAEA inspectors arrives in Iran

Visits planned to Natanz plant and the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility.

Iran Nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Iran Nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Five UN nuclear weapons inspectors arrived in Iran to visit uranium enrichment and reprocessing plants for the first time since Tehran announced in mid-February that it was suspending surprise inspections and removing agency cameras from some nuclear facilities, state-run television reported Saturday. Iran's deputy nuclear chief, Mohammed Saeedi, said the inspectors would begin their work at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in central Iran on Sunday, followed by a visit to the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Iranian officials hope the inspections of the two major facilities will prove the country's nuclear pursuits are peaceful in nature and not intended for developing weapons, as the US claims. Tehran says its nuclear program is merely for generating electricity. "The presence of the inspectors in Iran suggests that Iran wants to cooperate with the agency (IAEA) as before," one state-run radio broadcaster said Saturday. The previously scheduled inspection comes ahead of a visit early next week by Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is expected to encourage Iran's hard-line government to concede on its atomic program. "Tehran expects that ElBaradei will announce that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful since the inspections have not revealed anything to the contrary," the radio broadcaster said. On March 29, the UN Security Council demanded Iran suspend enrichment and asked the IAEA to report back in 30 days on whether it had complied. Iran has so far refused to comply, saying the small-scale enrichment project was strictly for research and was within its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Further heightening tensions, Iran last week unveiled a series of what it portrayed as sophisticated, homemade weapons, including flying boats and missiles invisible to radar. Though experts questioned Iran's claims about its weapons capabilities and believe much of the military technology displayed came from Russia, the war-games involving some 17,000 of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf sent a message that Iran has the capability to hit oil tankers if tensions with the US turn into a confrontation. ElBaradei's trip is meant to defuse growing tensions, though a partial success could actually exacerbate differences among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. If Iran commits to some Security Council requests but does not meet demands to freeze uranium enrichment that might placate Russia and China, which oppose tough measures against Iran. It would, however, fall short of the full compliance sought by the United States, France and Britain on enrichment and other issues. On Friday, Washington's UN envoy John Bolton said it would be wise for the US to consider diplomatic and economic options to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons if diplomacy at the United Nations fails. He said the Bush administration envisions sanctions if Tehran does not back down. "It would be, I think, simply prudent to be looking at other options," Bolton said at a breakfast meeting of the State Department Correspondents Association. In January, Iran forbade snap inspections after it was reported to the UN Security Council over suspicions it is seeking nuclear weapons. Natanz is the facility where Iran resumed research-scale uranium enrichment in February, and the Isfahan site reprocesses raw uranium into hexaflouride gas, the feedstock for enrichment. Uranium enriched to low levels is used to produce nuclear fuel but further enrichment makes it suitable for use in an atomic bomb. The five inspectors, who arrived in Tehran Friday, will stay in Iran for five days, state-run television reported. Saeedi said the inspectors' visit was planned within the framework of the NPT.