As Iranian officials prepared to meet this week with a six-nation bloc on the future of Tehran's nuclear programs, they hinted at a willingness to allow inspections to resume if the international community shows "good will." Read that to mean an easing of sanctions.
Iranian state-run media and politicians heralded the Monday visit of the U.N. nuclear agency chief as a promising start in the latest effort to draw Tehran into the international nonproliferation fold. They portrayed the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Yukiya Amano, as having wisely kept their distance, and their credibility, from America's misguided pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in neighboring Iraq.
The Vienna-based nuclear agency "could not be considered as accomplice to the crimes committed by the U.S. statesmen in Iraq," Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, said in holding up the nuclear agency as a more reliable force against proliferation than the "Hiroshima culprits" in Washington.
But arms control experts say there is little difference in the positions of the IAEA in demanding access to Iranian nuclear facilities and those of the United States and its allies in the so-called 5-plus-1 forum that will convene in Baghdad on Wednesday.
Negotiators from the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and Germany want Tehran to cease enriching uranium to 20%, a level that can be elevated to weapons-grade quality in a matter of months, and to ship what stockpiles it has out of the country to ensure it isn't upgraded.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Monday his insistence that all uranium enrichment cease in Iran and that the underground nuclear facility at Qom be shuttered. Israel is not party to the talks but its threat to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities to thwart what Israel sees as a plot to destroy it has ratcheted up tensions in the region and made resolution of the destabilizing inspection standoff a priority.
Diplomats preparing the 5-plus-1 agenda at the Baghdad talks said they would offer Iran help with a small reactor used in medical research and a promise of no further sanctions for its violation of nonproliferation agreements, according to The Times' diplomatic correspondent Paul Richter.
That is an offer that may have to be sweetened if Tehran is going to take it, says Leonard S. Spector, a former Energy Department nuclear security official now at the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Iran wants suspension of the sanctions curbing its foreign oil sales and access to international banks.
"The U.S. position is the U.N. position, that the program must be stopped and then we'll talk about removing sanctions," said Spector. But the best the 5-plus-1 side can hope for, he suspects, is that Tehran won't walk away from the table before tweaks to the deal can be pondered.
Iran is suffering under sanctions that curb its oil sales and international commerce, and may demand some relief in exchange for any concession on inspections to avoid an appearance of bowing to U.S. pressure.
That may be why Iranian politicians and commentators sought to present Amano and the IAEA as the more even-handed mediators with whom Tehran can expect to be dealt with respectfully.
"Iran considers IAEA's independence and promotion as a factor which would prevent violation of the member states' rights,” IRNA reported after Amano's meeting with Iran's lead negotiator on nuclear matters, Saeed Jalili.
Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahtpisheh, a member of the national security and foreign policy committee, told the semiofficial Fars news agency that Tehran will probably accept some inspections of Parchin, a key nuclear site south of Tehran where IAEA officials believe a nuclear bomb test was carried out inside a secret pressure chamber nine years ago. Iran has denied having such a chamber.
Iran would like to ease tensions over its nuclear programs by reopening its sites to IAEA inspection, Falahtpisheh said, if officials detect "good will" on the part of the IAEA.
What latitude the U.S. and fellow negotiators will have to reach a deal on inspections is uncertain, especially given the potential political fallout for President Obama in the midst of a reelection campaign.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush who has endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, told Fox News on Monday that he was "worried they’re going to lose the substance of the deal in an effort to get the political spin" of a breakthrough on inspections.
Obama's Republican political opponents may be "putting down a marker" for the Baghdad meeting, intending to portray any advances as a concession to Iran, Spector said.
"But there is certainly a point where Obama can say that if we can move the ball forward, it's a risk worth taking."
Photo: IAEA director Yukiya Amano at the Vienna airport as he embarked Monday on a trip to Tehran two days ahead of a gathering in Baghdad where the U.N. nuclear agency and a six-nation bloc will meet in hopes of getting Iran to agree to resume IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Credit: Ronald Zak / Associated Press