Exclusive: U.N. Won’t Back Down on Iran Nuclear Inspections

The head of the U.N.’s nuclear agency says it will demand Iran allow access to a key military site—even if it escalates tensions.

AP Photo (2)

The U.N. nuclear agency will not back off its demand to visit the Parchin military site even if this escalates the confrontation with Iran over its alleged nuclear-weapons work, the agency’s head Yukiya Amano told Newsweek/The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.

“We’ll pursue this objective until there’s a concrete result,” Amano said in an interview Friday in Vienna in his spacious office on the top floor of the 28-story United Nations building, which towers over the Danube River. The 64-year-old veteran Japanese diplomat has proved to be increasingly tough on Iran since taking over the International Atomic Energy Agency in December 2009.

“We don’t see the reason why they cannot grant us access to Parchin. It is a military site, but we can work out or manage access,” he said. Amano said the stand-off over getting to this test site “has become like a symbol” of Iran's alleged weapons work and its refusal to be transparent with the international community. He said the agency would “continue to focus on Parchin.”

The impasse over getting to this site threatens to torpedo a new round of investigations by Amano’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that comes as the Iranian crisis escalates toward a possible war.

Iran denies that it wants the bomb and says its nuclear program is an effort to use atomic energy for peaceful ends. But the United States fears Iran is secretly working toward developing nuclear weapons and has spearheaded the passing of four rounds of U.N. sanctions on Iran and a series of bilateral sanctions by the United States, European, and other states to get Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

Iran has refused to let IAEA inspectors into Parchin, 30 kilometers southeast of Tehran, despite intense lobbying for this by the U.N. atomic agency since the beginning of the year. The agency wants to visit one area at this sprawling military testing ground where it thinks there is a 19-meter-long, 4.6-meter-diameter metal-and-concrete cylinder where explosive experiments on how to trigger atomic explosions may have taken place.

The situation is all the more urgent since there are reports of activity at Parchin that may be related to cleaning up the site for traces, possibly from use of uranium metal, of any tests. The tests may have used natural uranium to test a nuclear trigger that would compact the core of a bomb with an explosion, or perhaps a neutron initiator that explodes from inside the core to enhance a chain reaction, but any of these would have been a “dry run” without setting off a chain reaction.

Without being specific, Amano said when asked about a possible clean-up: “We have information and there are some moves—there’s something moving out there. Going there soon is better” to find out. Iran denies that a clean-up is taking place at Parchin.

Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters in Vienna this month that Iran was willing to discuss weaponization questions, which were outlined extensively in an IAEA report last November, and was open to granting access to Parchin. But he warned about politicizing the issue and said a plan covering all issues must first be agreed for going forward, something the two sides have so far failed to do.

The IAEA rejects this linkage to a plan and says the visit to Parchin must be the first step, and not be delayed.

The IAEA began investigating Iran’s nuclear program in 2003, after an Iranian resistance group revealed that the Islamic Republic was hiding the construction of a plant to enrich uranium, which can be fuel for power reactors or the explosive core of atom bombs, and of a reactor that could make plutonium, also a potential bomb material.

The investigation stalled in 2008 over a wide range of questions about activity possibly related to developing nuclear weapons. These included whether Iran was working on the trigger for setting off a nuclear bomb, on a neutron initiator, and on how to make nuclear weapons small enough to fit on top of a missile.

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Pressured by international sanctions, which are now targeting the lifeblood of its economy—its oil sales, Iran let in a senior-level IAEA inspection team for two visits this year, in January and February. It denied access to Parchin on both these visits.

The IAEA had visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing suspicious, but, as Amano said, “that time we didn’t have enough information.” Now the information is better, “so to start with [a new round of inspections], we thought that Parchin was a good selection.” He said the IAEA had wanted to have a “good outcome” to report to a meeting it just held in Vienna in March of the agency’s 35-nation executive arm, its board of governors.

An informed source said Parchin was selected as a first step since it had seemed to be one Iran would be able to accept. It did not require giving Iran new documents, a demand that has hindered progress in the investigation. But the IAEA seems to have stirred up a hornet's nest, with more activity at the site in Parchin than the agency has seen there in the past seven or eight years.

The IAEA's drawing a line and sticking to it is new in its dealings with Iran. The fact is that Amano has transformed, since taking office in December 2009, the way the IAEA reports on the Islamic Republic. His predecessor, Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, was criticized for being too soft by sticking to a strict, legalistic interpretation of what the agency could do and say. ElBaradei stood up to U.S. pressure to be tougher, as he avoided drawing conclusions about whether Iran was doing weapons work, saying there was no evidence of this, only allegations.

Amano has been more forthright. In his first report, in February 2010, Amano clearly spoke about “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” He continued in this vein, issuing a detailed 12-page annex to a report in November that outlined Iran's alleged weapons work. The alleged secret project was said to be highly organized until 2003, and may since have continued in a more dispersed form in order to avoid detection by Western states.

Amano denies that he has a political, pro-U.S. agenda, as Iran has charged. A US diplomatic cable from shortly before he took office in December 2009 as IAEA director general, released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, had described him as “DG (director general) of all states but in agreement with us.” Another portrayed him as “solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

Amano insisted that his reports, even his expression of disappointment in a statement issued in Vienna at the same moment that his inspectors were flying out of Tehran after their February visit, were factual. “We had been asking access to Parchin. I expressed my disappointment because I (had) really wanted to report something positive, concrete to the March board.”

Amano said that while his reports could be used by some to justify war, this was not what he was doing. He was merely trying to clarify what Iran is doing. Such statements were not “a justification for war at all. It is a justification for our request for clarification. We should not confuse these two things.” He said that in the run-up to the war in Iraq information provided by various inspectors was used to justify the use of force. But, he said, “I am not doing that. What I am doing is that we have information that makes us wary. So we want to clarify. Clarification is not a use of force at all. This is the most peaceful method in order to avoid something worse.”

But he said tension could very well increase if Iran does not cooperate with IAEA efforts by June, when the IAEA board will meet again to review progress. “Yes of course, we could not make a positive report in March [and] tension has increased. If I cannot report something positive in June, that will be the case [again]. But I do not want to see that. So, I am asking for full cooperation from Iran. That is in the interest of Iran too. “