The International Atomic Energy Agency took the rare step of forming a country-specific team of experts after technical talks between the U.N. agency and Tehran's nuclear point man last week failed to secure access for IAEA inspectors. A high-level diplomatic forum involving officials of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany also collapsed earlier this year after three fruitless meetings with Iranian counterparts.
Iran's chief negotiator on nuclear matters, meanwhile, told leaders at a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on Wednesday that his country won't stop enriching uranium, as demanded by the diplomatic group.
"We will not relinquish our inalienable rights to peaceful use of nuclear energy and uranium enrichment," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told journalists and dignitaries on the sidelines of the summit, the Tehran Times reported.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in Tehran for the summit, asked the Iranian leadership to take "concrete steps" to address concerns that its nuclear program has taken on a military dimension, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said at a briefing at New York headquarters.
He provided no other details of Ban's discussion with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei except to say that it also touched on human rights and the war in Syria, a close ally of Iran.
Getting Iran to halt uranium enrichment to levels that can be converted to bomb-making quality was a key demand of the "P5-plus-1" talks, so named because they involve the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
After sessions in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow this spring failed to produce any agreement to limit Tehran's uranium enrichment to levels needed for energy production, the forum decided in June to relegate further talks to lower-level diplomats, and only after some progress was made in the technical talks in Vienna.
Those negotiations appeared to break down Friday, when IAEA Deputy Director Herman Nackaerts told journalists that an all-day talking marathon failed to resolve the issues preventing IAEA inspectors from visiting Iran's suspect facilities. Nackaerts said there was no plan to schedule another meeting, suggesting the two sides were at impasse.
IAEA officials have been trying for years to gain access to Iran's Parchin nuclear complex, where Western intelligence reports contend a nuclear bomb test blast was conducted nine years ago. A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded from satellite photos taken of the Parchin facility over the past few months that Iran has been trying to erase evidence of an explosives test ahead of any U.N. inspection.
Chen Kane, a senior research associate on nonproliferation matters at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said the task force forme this month will allow the agency to concentrate its scarce investigative and intelligence resources on analysis of the facilities where activity in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is suspected.
"Certification of compliance is a very demanding task," Kane said, noting that few IAEA officials have the qualifications needed to analyze Iran's program. The U.N. agency is even calling back several experts from retirement to join the effort, she said.
The IAEA didn't publicly disclose details of the task force, according to an announcement prepared for U.N. agency staff that was leaked to member states' delegates, journalists and academic colleagues Wednesday.
The IAEA created the Iran task force as part of "internal adjustments to meet the operational needs of the Safeguards Department," agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.
The stepped-up effort to keep an eye on Iran's nuclear developments coincides with rising tensions in the Middle East, where Israeli officials have threatened to wage airstrikes against Iran's facilities to prevent a nuclear bomb getting into its enemy's hands. Recent U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Iran has accelerated the building of centrifuges for uranium enrichment and moved the operation to a fortified bunker in Fordow.
Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Iran’s negotiator at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, left, has used this week'sTehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement to press the Islamic Republic's claimed right to enrich uranium for its nuclear programs, despite international concerns that the country is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Credit: Abedin Taherkenareh/European Pressphoto Agency