U.N. Inspectors’ Iran Nuclear Mission Fails as Tehran Denies Access to Key Site

IAEA inspectors abandoned their mission after Tehran denied them access to the suspect Parchin military test site.

Behrouz Mehri / Getty Images

In a crucial mission at a time of escalating tension over Iran, United Nations nuclear inspectors failed to make progress on finding out whether the Islamic republic seeks the bomb, and the International Atomic Energy Agency wasted no time in announcing this. A terse statement issued just as the IAEA inspectors’ plane was taking off from Iran reported that the mission was a bust. The team had been denied permission to see the suspect Parchin military testing site, despite “intensive efforts” to make it happen during the visit Monday and Tuesday. Iran and the IAEA also failed “to reach agreement on a document … (to resolve issues) in connection with Iran’s nuclear program, particularly those relating to possible military dimensions.”

The lack of results of the latest effort mirrored those of an earlier visit by IAEA inspectors a few weeks ago.

Iran had offered the two rounds of visits in an attempt to defuse increasing international tension over its nuclear ambitions. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in the statement: “We engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached.” No further talks were planned, the IAEA said.

Iran, however, tried to put a better spin on the latest visit. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the Iranian news agency ISNA that talks "will continue." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the nuclear agency’s representatives were in Iran to discuss a "framework for further talks and cooperation in the future" rather than to inspect.

But the five-member IAEA team was headed by the agency’s chief inspector, Herman Nackaerts, and included weapons inspector Jacques Baute. It had made going to Parchin a priority. Agency inspectors had visited Parchin in 2005 and found nothing suspect. But the IAEA has new information about a containment vessel built at the site for explosions tests. It wants to check if explosions, done without nuclear material, could have been used to learn such things as how to make the trigger that sets off atomic bombs. This is part of so-called possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear work which the IAEA wants to investigate before it can say whether the Iranian program is a peaceful or military one. Amano said it was “disappointing that Iran did not accept our request to visit Parchin during the first or second meetings.” IAEA spokesperson Gill Tudor said: “At this point there is no agreement on further discussions.”

The IAEA, accustomed to long, drawn-out inspections, seems to have lost its patience. It has been investigating Iran’s nuclear program since 2003, and has been stymied on the question of possible Iranian military applications since 2008. This month’s visits were an attempt to revitalize the investigation after an IAEA report last November outlined the full extent of allegations about alleged nuclear-weapons activity in Iran. Iran says the IAEA claims are based on forged documents and insists its program is a peaceful one designed to generate electricity.

But since November, the crisis has escalated. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on its oil sales. There’s increasing talk of a possible Israeli military strike, despite U.S. opposition.

There were low expectations for the IAEA inspections this time around, but few expected the door would shut so quickly. Iran has matched its threats with gestures of conciliation, such as the IAEA visits and an offer to resume talks with six world powers over Iran’s nuclear program. This latest failure risks puncturing Iran’s narrative that it has nothing to hide and that it is cooperative rather than confrontational with the international community.

Still, it is by no means clear that the breakdown in IAEA inspections will torpedo the effort to resume the talks between Iran and the so-called P5 plus 1: the five permanent U.N. Security Council members—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—plus Germany. Diplomats said it was not new for IAEA inspections in Iran to run into problems beyond the routine safeguard measures that are in place. A U.S. official said the P5 plus 1 was “prepared to explore diplomacy knowing full well that Iran has so far not been willing to engage seriously.”

This is, however, an election year in the United States, and the IAEA’s setback could become electoral fodder. It may reinforce battle lines being drawn between a U.S. Congress more hardline than the Obama administration, and give ammunition to Republican candidates staking out hawkish positions against a president they portray as weak on Iran.

In the end, an inspection that was designed to lessen tension over Iran will instead almost certainly increase it.