Iran’s invitation to the IAEA was the first conciliatory gesture since the country’s leaders threatened last month to block the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for economic sanctions. But Western diplomats and nuclear experts on Friday expressed skepticism about the meeting, noting that Iran continues to move aggressively to enlarge its stockpile of enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. and Western demands.
Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former top inspector, warned in an interview that Iran may be seeking to buy more time by initiating talks without freezing its production of the nuclear fuel used in weapons and at nuclear power plants.
He said Iran has taken a major step toward weapons capability with last month’s start-up of an underground plant near the city of Qom, where hundreds of centrifuge machines are making a more concentrated form of enriched uranium.
“The new machines are working,” said Heinonen, who was the U.N. agency’s nuclear safeguards chief until 2010. “By February, they will have tripled the production rate for 20 percent enriched uranium.”
Ray Takeyh, a former senior adviser to the Obama administration on the Persian Gulf region, said Iran has repeatedly sought to use negotiations as a delaying tactic.
The talks typically “will be technical and protracted,” but the “fundamental problem remains unresolved.”
“Under this cover, Iran continues to move forward,” said Takeyh, now a Middle East policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Tehran, thousands of angry Iranians demonstrated against the United States and Israel during a burial procession for Ahmadi-Roshan, the nuclear chemist who was assassinated this week in broad daylight on a Tehran street.
“I will kill, kill those who killed my brother,” shouted the demonstrators, most of whom appeared to be members of Iran’s paramilitary Basij forces. Some held posters depicting President Obama with a Star of David on his forehead and “terrorist” written underneath.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, also threatened revenge in a letter of condolence to the scientist’s family, which was made public Thursday. The 32-year-old chemist was described by Iranian media as the deputy director of Iran’s largest uranium-enrichment facility, near the town of Natanz.
“We will never disregard punishment for the individuals who committed this crime and the elements behind its scene,” Khamenei wrote.