Easing Stance, Iran Offers Inspectors ‘Supervision’ Of Nuclear Program

Iran on Monday made its first counterproposal in two years to ease the confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, offering to allow international inspectors “full supervision” of the country’s nuclear activities for the next five years, but on the condition that the mounting sanctions against Iran are lifted.

The proposal came from Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, who was designated by the United Nations in 2007 as a scientist involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, and, as such, subject to a freeze on his assets and limitations on his travel. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last year.

Mr. Abbasi’s offer was vaguely worded. It was far from clear what he meant by “full supervision,” after several years in which Iran has refused to turn over documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency or allow interviews of its most important nuclear scientists. The government has also restricted where inspectors could travel.

Nonetheless, the overture is the first time since October 2009 that Iran has indicated a willingness to negotiate over the program, and one senior Obama administration official said the offer suggested “that the sanctions are wearing on the leadership.”

Mr. Abbasi made his statement to the Iranian Student News Agency, which is considered a semiofficial organ and has been used to convey changes of position in the past. “We proposed that the agency keep Iran’s nuclear program and activities under full supervision for five years, provided that sanctions against Iran are lifted,” he told the news agency.

In recent weeks Russia has intervened in an effort to get Iran to make a serious offer to relieve some of the pressure on Iran, in part out of concern that the sanctions were sharply interfering with its energy trade with Iran. But there is also worry that Iran’s recent decision to move some of its uranium enrichment program to a well-protected underground site could encourage those in Israel who have pressed for military action before it is too late to slow the program.

So far, the United Nations has issued four sets of sanctions, each intended to increase the economic pressure on Iran. But the effects have been spotty at best, and a run-up in oil prices this year essentially undermined much of the economic effects. Nonetheless, Iran has run into difficulties obtaining parts for its nuclear program, its ships have been denied insurance and its trade with much of Europe has been sharply restricted.

Mr. Abbasi was appointed to his current job in February, but before that he was well known to American, European and Israeli intelligence agencies. Officially, he worked at Shahid Beheshti University before taking up his current post, and he was on his way there last November when a “sticky bomb” was attached to his car. He narrowly escaped before it went off. One of his fellow scientists, heading to the university that morning on the other side of Tehran, was not so lucky, and he died in a nearly simultaneous attack.

Mr. Abbasi is widely believed, by nuclear inspectors and several intelligence agencies, to be working closely with Mohsen Fakhirizadeh, another academic, who is believed to head some of the central research into how to create nuclear weapons. He, too, is identified on the United Nations list.

In the fall of 2009, in its only real negotiation with the Iranian government, the Obama administration proposed that Iran agree to a fuel swap in which the West would provide an outside supply of fresh nuclear fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. In return, Iran would agree to a conditional cessation of its production of uranium, which can be used for nuclear power plants or, with further enrichment, for nuclear weapons.

A deal was struck in Vienna but was rejected once Iranian negotiators took it back to Tehran. “We believe it was killed by the supreme leader,” one of President Obama’s aides said earlier this year, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s most senior cleric.

Mr. Abbasi said recently that the deal was dead and would not be revived.

In past years, Iran has agreed to specific “work plans” with the international atomic agency to allow inspections or turn over documents. But all of them have fallen apart. Iran has dismissed the agency’s questions about “possible military dimensions” of its program - a diplomatic phrase referring to evidence the country sought to build nuclear warheads - by saying that it was fabricated by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Israeli Mossad.

At the same time, Iran has allowed regular access to the main nuclear site at Natanz and periodic access to a much newer installation near the holy city of Qum, which Iran made public after it was clear that Western intelligence agencies had found it.

The spotty nature of Iran’s responses explains why the phrase “full supervision” is so important to United Nations inspectors and the group of Western allies who have been the most vigorous in enforcing the sanctions. If it means that inspectors could visit all the sites on their list, interview scientists who are believed to be linked to military work and review the documents that Iran has declined to turn over, it would mark a significant breakthrough.

But as one American intelligence official put it recently, “We have a list of tunnels to look at that is so long, it would take years.”

Source: The New York Times