International Atomic Energy Agency

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, delivers a speech during his meeting with members of Experts Assembly in Tehran on Thursday. He welcomed President Barack Obama’s comments advocating diplomacy and not war as a solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

VIENNA — Three days of protracted negotiations held under the specter of war highlighted the diplomatic difficulties ahead for nations intent on ensuring that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

In a statement Thursday that was less than dramatic, six world powers avoided any bitter criticism of Iran and said diplomacy — not war — is the best way forward.

The cautious wording that emerged from a weeklong meeting of the U.N. nuclear agency reflected more than a decision to tamp down the rhetoric after a steady drumbeat of warnings from Israel that the time was approaching for possible attacks on Iran to disrupt its nuclear program.

Indeed, the language was substantially milder than the tough approach sought by Washington and allies Britain, France and Germany at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board meeting. Agreement came only after tough negotiations with Russia and China.

That could spell trouble on any diplomatic path ahead.

Russia, China and the four Western nations have agreed to meet with Iran in another effort to seek a negotiated solution. But with East-West disagreements within the group greater than ever, it could be difficult for the six to act in coordination.

A previous series of talks between the six and Iran ended in failure, the last one more than a year ago in Istanbul, Turkey. But the issue of six-power unity was never tested during those talks, because Tehran refused even to consider discussing concessions on its nuclear program.

That could change as Russian and Chinese irritation grows with what the two consider unwarranted tough and unilateral sanctions recently imposed on Iran by Washington and the European Union. Tehran might try to exploit the rift by offering a compromise that Moscow and Beijing would likely welcome but the West would proclaim meaningless.

Thursday’s statement indicated that the West was willing to go some ways to maintain at least a semblance of six-power unity.

It refrained from calling out the Islamic Republic for refusing to cooperate with the IAEA’s probe of allegations that it secretly worked on components of a nuclear arms program.

Instead it put the onus both on Iran and the IAEA to “intensify their dialogue” to resolve the four-year standoff. And indirectly countering weeks of Israeli saber-rattling, it emphasized “continued support for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Returning to Jerusalem from intensive talks in Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government will not allow Iran to obtain atomic bombs but prefers a peaceful solution to the issue

“I hope that Iran chooses to part from its nuclear program peacefully,” Netanyahu said, adding, “It is forbidden to let Iran arm itself with nuclear weapons, and I intend not to allow it.”

Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran is on a path that could eventually lead to the production of a nuclear weapon, but part ways over urgency: Netanyahu has seemed impatient with President Barack Obama’s statements that tough new economic sanctions imposed by the West be given time to work.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief IAEA delegate, condemned Israel’s “continuous threat of attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

In Tehran, Iran’s top leader welcomed comments by Obama advocating diplomacy as a solution in a rare positive signal from the head of a nation that regards Washington as its bitter foe.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Obama’s statement this week that he saw a “window of opportunity” to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, told a group of clerics: “This expression is a good word. This is a wise remark indicating taking distance from illusion.”

But Khamenei had criticism for Obama as well. The Iranian leader said the economic sanctions pushed by the U.S. and other nations as a way to get Iran to alter its nuclear program would “lead their calculations to failure.”

Asked about Khamenei’s remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “The president’s policy toward Iran is focused in a very clear-eyed way on Iranian behavior, certainly not on rhetoric of any kind.”

Ahead of the Vienna meeting, Washington and its European partners had hoped to send a firmer signal to Iran than even a tough joint statement would have.

They had sought a six-power resolution demanding compliance with U.N. Security Council demands for Tehran to end uranium enrichment and other programs that could be used for weapons purposes. A resolution passed by the IAEA board automatically goes to the Security Council and could serve as a potential springboard for new U.N. sanctions.

Instead, it took three days of horse trading — and a one-day adjournment Wednesday of the IAEA meeting — to agree on the watered-down text.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated that the United States continues “to believe that we have space for diplomacy ... coupled with very strong pressure in the form of the toughest sanctions the international community has ever imposed.”

U.S. chief IAEA delegate Robert Wood said the six nations arrived at “a very good statement after some constructive discussions.” But freed of the constraints of unity imposed on the group of six, his statement to the board reflected a much tougher line.

“While we remain committed to a diplomatic resolution to the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program ... we will not sit idle while a member state openly flouts its obligations and embarks on a path of deception and deceit,” he said.

Iran has steadfastly rejected demands to halt its uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be the foundation for a future nuclear weapons program by providing the fissile core of nuclear weapons. Tehran claims it seeks only energy and medical research from its reactors, but it wants full control over the nuclear process from uranium ore to fuel rods.

It has also stonewalled an IAEA probe of suspected clandestine research and development into nuclear weapons for four years, dismissing the allegations as based on forged intelligence from the United States and Israel.

In a possible concession Tuesday, Tehran said agency experts could visit Parchin, a military facility that the IAEA suspects was used for secret atomic weapons work. An IAEA official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, dismissed the offer as a stalling tactic. IAEA inspectors were refused access to Parchin twice in recent weeks.

Concerns about Parchin are high. All Western statements, as well as the one issued Thursday by the six powers, have called on Iran to grant access to the facility.

Diplomats who spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday said Iran was trying to clean up the site. They based their assessment on satellite images they said appeared to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles.

Two diplomats said their information reveals that Iran had experimented at the site with a test version of a neutron trigger used to set off a nuclear blast — information not previously made public.Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian chief delegate to the IAEA, described earlier diplomats’ reports of a test version of a neutron trigger as “a ridiculous and childish story.”

VIENNA — Satellite images of an Iranian military facility appear to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site, indicating an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger, diplomats told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The assertions from the diplomats, all nuclear experts accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, could add to pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.

While the U.S. and the EU are backing a sanctions-heavy approach, Israel has warned that it may resort to a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from obtaining atomic weapons.

Two of the diplomats said the crews at the Parchin military site may be trying to erase evidence of tests of a neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion. A third diplomat could not confirm that but said attempts to trigger a so-called neutron initiator could only be in the context of trying to develop nuclear arms.

In a November report, an IAEA report said Parchin appeared to be the site of experiments with explosives meant to initiate a nuclear chain reaction.

It did not mention a neutron initiator, but a separate section said Iran may have experimented with a neutron initiator. In contrast, the intelligence information shared with the AP by the two diplomats linked the high-explosives work to setting off a neutron initiator.

The November report said that “if placed in the center of a nuclear core of an implosion-type nuclear device and compressed, [a neutron initiator] could produce a burst of neutrons suitable for initiating a fission chain reaction.”

U.S. intelligence officials say they generally stand by a 2007 intelligence assessment that asserts Iran stopped comprehensive secret work on developing nuclear arms in 2003. But Britain, France, Germany, Israel and other U.S. allies think such activities have continued past that date, a view shared by the IAEA. Asked for comment, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, told the AP he would not discuss any nuclear issues until after he delivered his statement to the agency’s 35-nation board meeting Thursday. IAEA officials also said they could not comment. Attention most recently focused on Parchin several days ago, when senior IAEA officials spoke of unexplained activities without saying what they could be and said an inspection of buildings there was taking on added urgency.

They declined to go into detail but said radioactive traces could be left by other material. Tehran said that an agreement outlining conditions of an IAEA inspection of Parchin must first be agreed on — a move dismissed by a senior international official as a delaying tactic.

The diplomats and officials spoke ahead of a meeting of the IAEA board Thursday focusing on Iran’s defiance of U.N. Security Council demands to end uranium enrichment.

Officials did not detail the text agreed upon, but the U.S., Britain, France and Germany wanted a joint statement that takes Iran to task for defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and cooperate with an IAEA probe.

A Western diplomat told the AP that Russia and China sought more moderate language.

Printed on Thursday, March 8, 2012 as: Evidence indicates Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons trigger

SEOUL, South Korea — Surprise and skepticism met the announcement that North Korea would freeze most nuclear activities in exchange for food aid from the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials will closely watch North Korea carry out its promises to suspend uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, stop long-range missile and nuclear tests and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return.

Both sides call the steps confidence-building measures to improve relations between the U.S. and North Korea, and recognized the 1953 Korean War armistice as a “cornerstone” of peace on the Korean peninsula.

Some key questions and answers about the agreement announced late Wednesday:

Q: What is North Korea’s motivation for reaching this deal?
A: Ensuring stability. As Kim Jong Un becomes the third-generation Kim to lead the nation, North Korea’s leadership is keen to resolve potentially destabilizing issues, including the U.S. military presence in South Korea and chronic food shortages.

The Korean peninsula has been in a technical state of war since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, and a peace treaty with the U.S. is a key foreign policy goal for North Korea.

Food shortages in the country are chronic. Sanctions were imposed in 2006 and tightened in 2009 after two nuclear tests, and aid promised in exchange for disarmament was halted. That meant less food and resources, and harsh weather has also cut into the meager agricultural output.

The North Koreans would like to raise the issue of lifting those sanctions in future talks.

Q: What does this agreement say about Kim Jong Un’s fledgling rule?
A: This deal is the clearest sign yet that the foreign policy laid out during Kim Jong Il’s rule will be carried out under Kim Jong Un, and suggests a measure of stability and continuity in Pyongyang two months after his father’s death.

After the provocations of 2009, including the launch of a long-range missile and a nuclear test, North Korea’s foreign policy on the U.S. shifted dramatically in 2010. After Kim Jong Un was revealed during a special Workers’ Party conference in September 2010 as his father’s chosen successor, the policy toward the U.S. veered noticeably toward engagement and away from provocation.

Starting in July 2011, North Korean and U.S. diplomats met at least three times to hash out the details of a far-reaching agreement on offering food in exchange for nuclear concessions.

The Associated Press reported in December they were on the verge of signing the deal when Kim Jong Il’s death put those negotiations (of food aid for dearmament) on hold. That the North Koreans returned to the negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period indicates unity.

Q: What are North Korea’s current nuclear capabilities?
A: North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight “primitive” atomic bombs, according to U.S. scientist Siegfried Hecker at Stanford University. In 2009, North Korea claimed it would begin enriching uranium, a second way to make atomic bombs, and revealed the facility to Hecker and North Korea expert Robert Carlin during a November 2010 visit.He says North Korea is not producing plutonium at the moment, but there’s little information about whether they’ve made highly enriched uranium or tried to build a bomb using it.

Q: How effective will the agreement be in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?
A: Hecker says he has advised the U.S. government to think about three points: No more bombs, no better bombs and no exports. The suspension of uranium enrichment will limit its ability to make more bombs, while the moratorium means it won’t be able to test its devices. U.N. inspectors are to be allowed back into North Korea’s facilities to verify it is adhering to the agreement.

Q: Will North Korea ever rid itself of nuclear weapons?
A: Skepticism is widespread that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea has always cited the U.S. military presence in the region as a main reason for its drive to build atomic weapons, and having nuclear weapons to protect against the U.S. threat has always been a key source of pride for the North Koreans.

That said, North Korea insists that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula remains a goal.

Q: If this deal proceeds as expected, what will be the next step in improving relations between North Korea and the U.S. and its allies?
A: U.S. and North Korean officials must meet to discuss the technical details of distributing food aid, a tricky issue since Washington wants to be sure the food goes to malnourished children and not to the elite or the military. Next, North Korea must reach out to the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow the return of inspectors who were expelled in 2009.

The issue of tensions between the two Koreas, particularly blame for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, remains unresolved as does the matter of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Both have been obstacles to resuming the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that also involve China and Russia.

Q: How and when will the U.S. food aid arrive?
A: U.S. officials and non-governmental organizations say experts will have to be on the ground in North Korea before food delivery begins. Aid groups say that could take anywhere from several weeks to months. Washington and Pyongyang have promised another meeting “soon” to finalize details about a proposed initial package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid, with the potential for more down the road.

It may not, however, arrive in time for the big celebrations in April to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report. Follow AP’s Korea bureau chief Jean Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Foster Klug at twitter.com/APKlug.

Printed on Friday, March 2, 2012 as: North Korean nuclear deal raises particular question

At Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, Iran, demonstrators held posters and photos of assassinated scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, killed in an explosion last month to await delegates from the International Atomic Energy Organization.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s foreign minister expressed optimism Sunday that a visit by U.N. inspectors to Iran’s nuclear facilities would produce an understanding, despite world concerns that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

The three-day inspection tour by the International Atomic Energy Agency team comes during spiking tension. The West is imposing new sanctions to try to force Iran to slow or halt its nuclear program, and Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil passage, in retaliation.

Visiting Ethiopia, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to be trying to defuse the crisis.

“We are very optimistic about the mission and the outcome” of the IAEA mission, Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency.

“We’ve always tried to put transparency as a principle in our cooperation with IAEA,” Salehi said. “During this visit, the delegation has questions and the necessary answers will be given.”

The findings from the visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran’s ability to enrich uranium — which Washington and allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but claims it seeks to fuel reactors only for energy and medical research.

The team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes. Earlier this month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country’s main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.

The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts — Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa — suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.

In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival, the IAEA’s Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts — who is in charge of the agency’s Iran file — said he wants Tehran to “engage us on all concerns.”

Iran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for three years, saying they are based on “fabricated documents” provided by a “few arrogant countries” — a phrase authorities in Iran often use to refer to the United States and its allies.

“So we’re looking forward to the start of a dialogue,” Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport. “A dialogue that is overdue since very long.”

In a sign of the tensions that surround Iran’s disputed nuclear program, a dozen Iranian hard-liners carrying photos of slain nuclear expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were waiting at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport early Sunday.

VIENNA — Satellite surveillance has shown an increase in activity at an Iranian site suspected of links to alleged secret work on nuclear weapons, officials tell The Associated Press.

One of the officials cited intelligence from his home country, saying it appeared Tehran is trying to cover its tracks by sanitizing the site and removing any evidence of nuclear research and development. Counterparts from two other countries confirmed sightings of increased activity but said they did not have reasons to believe it was linked to such efforts.

Their focus is on a structure believed to be housing a large metal chamber at a military site that a Nov. 8 International Atomic Energy Agency report described as being used for nuclear-related explosives testing.

Officials from the three IAEA member countries say that recent satellite imagery of the site, at Parchin, southwest of Tehran, shows increased activity, including an unusual number of vehicles arriving and leaving. One of the officials described the movements, recorded Nov. 4-5, as unusual and said his country views it as evidence that Iran is trying to “clean” the area of traces of weapons-related work.

“Freight trucks, special haulage vehicles and cranes were seen entering and leaving... [and] some equipment and dangerous materials were removed from the site,” said a summary he provided to the AP.

His counterparts agreed there had been more activity than usual at the site around that date but could not conclude that pointed to an attempted cover-up by the Iranians.

Iran is already under U.N. Security council sanctions because of concerns it seeks to develop nuclear weapons, and the IAEA report has increased international pressure. But the Islamic Repulic insists it has no such intentions and says Israel, and its undeclared nuclear arsenal, is the main threat to the Middle East.

The large Parchin complex is used for research, development, and production of ammunition, missiles, and high explosives. IAEA experts had already visited the site twice in 2005 and were allowed to pick several buildings at random for inspections that revealed nothing suspicious. But a former inspector who was part of that inspection told the AP that the site was too vast to be able to draw conclusions on the basis of such restricted and haphazard visits.

Iran asserts it is interested only in producing energy. But it has refused for over three years to allow the IAEA to probe growing suspicions that it is conducting research and development of such weapons and continues to enrich uranium, which can be used both to power reactors of arm
nuclear warheads.