No sign of breakthrough in UN nuclear chief's Tehran talks

VIENNA/DUBAI Tue May 22, 2012 1:44am IST

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano briefs the media before his trip to Tehran at the international airport in Vienna May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano briefs the media before his trip to Tehran at the international airport in Vienna May 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

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VIENNA/DUBAI (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief held talks in Tehran on Monday ahead of a meeting between major powers and Iranian officials this week, but there was no immediate sign of a breakthrough in the tense confrontation over Iran's nuclear programme.

Yukiya Amano paid a rare visit to Tehran after voicing hope of its agreement to cooperate with an investigation by his International Atomic Energy Agency into what Western states suspect are Iran's efforts to develop atomic bomb capability.

Amano met the head of Iran's nuclear energy agency, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, and its top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who will sit down in Baghdad on Wednesday with world powers seeking overall curbs on Iran's disputed atomic activity.

"(Monday's) negotiations were very useful. We held expanded and intensive negotiations in a good atmosphere," Amano was quoted as saying by the website of Iranian state television.

"Definitely, the progress of (these) talks will have a positive impact on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (six major powers). Of course these are two different issues but they can strengthen each other," he said.

Asked about a framework agreement that would resolve questions over the nature of Iran's nuclear activity quickly, Amano added: "I will not go into details but the agency has some viewpoints and Iran has its own specific viewpoints."

There was no indication that Iran had addressed Amano's overriding priority - a deal to obtain access for IAEA investigators to Iranian sites, nuclear scientists and documents needed to check intelligence suggesting that Tehran has pursued covert research relevant to developing nuclear bombs.

There was no immediate comment directly from the IAEA, the Vienna-based U.N. agency. Amano was due to return on Tuesday morning, when he might make a statement.

"It doesn't look like any significant breakthrough was made," a Western diplomat in the Austrian capital said.

Jalili said after the talks that Iran was "a serious supporter of ... global disarmament, confronting the spread of nuclear weapons and the usage of peaceful nuclear technology for (non-proliferation treaty) member states", the television said.

"Today we have good negotiations with Amano on these three fields and we hope to have good cooperation with the agency in the future in these areas," Jalili said.

State television said Amano later met Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and "expressed happiness over Iran's readiness to continue cooperation with the agency".

SCEPTICISM

Amano had scheduled Monday's talks with Iran at such short notice that diplomats said a deal on improved IAEA access might be near. But few saw Tehran going far enough to convince the West to roll back swiftly on punitive sanctions when Jalili meets global power envoys in Baghdad on Wednesday.

"We are not going to do anything concrete in exchange for nice words," a Western diplomat said of the Baghdad meeting, the outcome of a big power session with Iran in Istanbul last month that ended a diplomatic freeze of more than a year.

Jalili will hold talks in the Iraqi capital with Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief heading a six-power coalition comprised of the five U.N. Security Council permanent members - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - plus Germany.

By dangling the prospect of enhanced cooperation with U.N. inspectors, diplomats say, Iran might aim for leverage in the broader talks where the United States and its allies want Tehran to curb work they say is a cover for developing atomic bombs.

Pressure for a deal has risen. Escalating Western sanctions on Iran's economically vital energy exports, and threats by Israel and the United States of last-ditch military action, have pushed up world oil prices, compounding the economic misery wrought by debt crises in many industrialised countries.

But Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted armed forces chief Hassan Firouzabadi as saying Iran's aim was the "complete annihilation of Israel".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech on Monday, said: "Iran threatens Israel, and peace throughout the world.

"In the face of this evil intent, the leading nations in the world must show force and clarity, and not weakness.

"They shouldn't make concessions to Iran, they should make sharp and unequivocal demands, to stop all enrichment of nuclear material in Iran, to take out of Iran the nuclear material enriched until now, and dismantle the underground nuclear facility near the city of Qom.

"Only in this way can it be possible to ensure that Iran won't obtain a nuclear bomb."

URANIUM ENRICHMENT

The U.N. watchdog is seeking access to sites, nuclear officials and scientists and documents to shed light on work in Iran applicable to developing the capability to make nuclear weapons, especially the Parchin military complex outside Tehran.

Two meetings between Iran and senior Amano aides in Tehran in January and February failed to produce any notable progress. But both sides were more upbeat after another round of talks in Vienna last week, raising hopes for a deal.

Such a deal would also not be enough in itself to allay international concerns. World powers want Iran to curb uranium enrichment, which can yield fuel for nuclear power plants or for nuclear bombs, depending on the level of refinement.

Iran, to general disbelief from its Israeli and Western adversaries, insists its nuclear programme is intended only to generate electricity in a country that is one of world's top oil exporters and to produce isotopes for cancer treatment.

In Baghdad, the powers' main goal is to get Iran to stop the higher-grade uranium enrichment it started two years ago and has since expanded, shortening the time needed for any weapons bid.

Iran says it needs uranium enriched to a fissile concentration of 20 percent for its medical isotope reactor. Enrichment to 5 percent of fissile purity is suitable for power plant fuel, while 90 percent constitutes fuel for bombs.

A Western diplomat said Iranian cooperation on such issues as IAEA access to Parchin was "important but not sufficient".

"The 20 percent enrichment has to be addressed as a priority," the diplomat said.

The EU's Ashton and diplomats from the six powers were expected to meet in Amman on Tuesday to coordinate their approach to the Baghdad talks.

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, William Maclean, Patrick Markey, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Ori Lewis, Dan Williams and Zahra Hosseinian; editing by Andrew Roche)

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