The European Union said today that world powers have agreed to a new round of talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, as Tehran gave permission for inspectors to visit a site suspected of secret atomic work.
The two developments appeared to counter the crisis atmosphere over Iran’s nuclear development programme, the focus of talks in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israel’s visiting prime minister.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, the UK, China, Russia and France – and Germany agreed to a new round of nuclear talks with Iran.
Previous talks have not achieved what the powers want – an end to uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. The last round of negotiations in January 2011 ended in failure.
The US and its allies believe Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Tehran denies that, insisting that its programme is for peaceful purposes.
Baroness Ashton said in a statement that the EU hopes Iran “will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community’s long-standing concerns on its nuclear programme”.
The time and venue of the new talks have not been set.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that the onus would “be on Iran to convince the international community that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful”.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle called for a diplomatic solution, adding: “A nuclear-armed Iran must be prevented.”
Baroness Ashton was responding to a February letter from Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, in which he proposed new discussions.
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency last year published a report that included what it said was evidence of Iranian activity that could be linked to weapons development. The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said on Monday that his organisation had “serious concerns” that Iran might be hiding secret atomic weapons work, singling out the Parchin military complex south east of Tehran.
Today, Iran appeared to respond partially to those concerns, granting long-sought permission to IAEA inspectors to visit the Parchin compound. Iran describes the site as a military base, not a nuclear facility.
The semi-official ISNA news agency stated a key condition: such a visit would require an agreement between the two sides on guidelines.
“Given that Parchin is a military site, access to this facility is a time-consuming process, and it can’t be visited repeatedly,” ISNA quoted the Iranian statement as saying. It added that following repeated IAEA demands, “permission will be granted for access once more”.
Inspecting Parchin was a key request by senior IAEA teams that visited Tehran in January and February. Iran rebuffed those demands at the time, as well as attempts by the nuclear agency’s team to question Iranian officials and secure other information linked to the allegations of secret weapons work.
The Parchin complex has been often mentioned in the West as a suspected base for secret nuclear experiments – a claim Iran consistently denies. IAEA inspectors visited the site in 2005, but only saw one of four areas on the grounds, reporting no unusual activities.
Last year, the IAEA’s report said there were indications Tehran had conducted high-explosives testing to set off a nuclear charge at Parchin. Iran denied the atomic activity and insisted that any decision to open the site rests with the armed forces.
“We have our credible information that indicates that Iran engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices,” Mr Amano told reporters on Monday outside a 35-nation IAEA board meeting in Vienna, describing his sources as “old information and new information”.
Tehran dismissed the charge, saying it was based on “fabricated documents” provided by a “few arrogant countries”, a phrase Iranian authorities often use to refer to the US and its allies.