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(Adds comment from Karim Sadjadpour in 11th paragraph.)
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- United Nations investigators begin two days of meetings in Iran today, offering Tehran’s government a chance to stem growing speculation the country’s nuclear program will spark a military conflict.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency flew to the Iranian capital yesterday for their second round of talks in a month. The visit begins a week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will boost production of 20 percent enriched uranium at a deep underground facility in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
“We hope to have some concrete results after this trip,” the IAEA’s top inspector Herman Nackaerts said late yesterday at Vienna International Airport. “The highest priority remains, of course, the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, and we want to tackle all outstanding issues.”
The simmering conflict over Iran’s nuclear work has driven oil prices higher. Israel and the U.S. have refused to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites to prevent the country from acquiring a weapon. Iran, which hid its work for more than a decade before 2003, says it wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
‘Hysterical War Talk’
“This meeting is a crucial opportunity for everyone, including the Iranians, to get serious,” Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball said in a telephone interview from Vienna. “Getting serious means focusing on the near-term problem that 20 percent enriched uranium represents,” which drives the “hysterical war talk in some quarters.”
Iran sent the European Union a letter last week asking for negotiations over its nuclear program to resume at the “earliest possibility,” according to a copy of the one-page document obtained by Bloomberg. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton met Feb. 18 and said they are reviewing the Iranian offer.
“The stakes are higher than ever before due to the heightened tensions, and the flexibility of both sides probably are at their lowest,” said Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council. Without compromise “they will face a high risk of a confrontation that neither side actually wants.”
The EU and the U.S. imposed additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, restricting trade and financial transactions. Iran, the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, after Saudi Arabia, is already under four rounds of UN sanctions.
Iran stopped exporting crude oil to French and British companies, the oil ministry’s news website Shana reported yesterday, citing Alireza Nikzad Rahbar, a ministry spokesman.
Iran “will give its crude oil to new customers instead of French and U.K. companies,” Rahbar said. The halt in shipments followed a warning by Iran’s oil minister that the Persian Gulf country might act preemptively ahead of an EU ban on purchases of Iranian crude planned to start in July, he said, according to the report.
The tightening economic sanctions have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s back “increasingly against the wall,” Iran researcher Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington said on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.’ ‘‘And he has two ways of seeking relief: one is in the form of a nuclear compromise, and the other is in the form of a nuclear weapon.’’
‘‘Negotiations are long overdue,’’ Olli Heinonen, who visited Iranian atomic installations about 20 times as the UN’s top former inspector, said in an e-mail. Inspectors should concentrate on getting more access to Iranian facilities and scientists without getting bogged down over questions about the authenticity of intelligence shared with the agency, he said.
The Vienna-based IAEA said in November that it had ‘‘credible’’ intelligence showing that Iran worked on components needed for a nuclear weapon until 2010. Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear-weapons scientist and former IAEA inspector, wrote Jan. 11 that some of the evidence may be forged, a claim that Iran has consistently made.
The agency has sought access to Iran’s Parchin military base and Lavisan physics center as well as to centrifuge workshops and uranium mines. All of Iran’s declared nuclear material is under IAEA seal, monitored by cameras and subject to regular inspection.
‘‘Iran should allow the IAEA to go to Marivan and take samples at the site where Iran supposedly did their full-scale high-explosive tests,” said Kelley, who helped debunk forged intelligence before the 2003 Iraq War. “The agency needs to put Marivan first because it is the sleeping dog in the last report.”
The IAEA said in its November report that Iran allegedly tested explosives designed for its Shahab-3 missile warhead in Marivan during 2003. Uranium traces could still be found if used in the experiments, according to Kimball and Kelley.
Diplomats, under a “tremendous amount of pressure to make a deal,” should exercise caution with Iran’s government, according to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
“Tehran may not only reject it, it might become the new standard other countries will demand you meet in reaching any new nuclear deals,” he said. If Iran is ultimately permitted to enrich uranium, the U.S. will find it difficult to tell other countries not to follow suit, according to Sokolski.
--With assistance from John Walcott in Washington and Ladane Nasseri in Dubai. Editors: John Walcott, Terry Atlas
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