Hopes had been raised that the negotiations might produce a breakthrough after the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog announced Tuesday that it was close to a deal with Iran that would open up some of its most secretive nuclear facilities to inspection.
But U.S. officials stressed that the tentative accord reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency pertained to the processes by which Iran might account for the nuclear research programs it has conducted in the past and would not address its plans into the future.
The apparent deal with the IAEA attempts to resolve one of the thorniest disputes between Iran and Western governments in recent years: the nation’s refusal to account for a secret program of alleged nuclear weapons research conducted as recently as 2003. Iran insists that it has never sought to manufacture nuclear weapons, but it has routinely blocked access to key scientists and to military installations where the work was alleged to have occurred.
After a previously unscheduled visit to Iran over the weekend, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said Tuesday that the two sides had essentially settled their differences and were formalizing a plan that would ease the investigation of Iran’s past nuclear activities, ending a six-year stalemate.
“I can say it will be signed quite soon,” Amano told reporters at the Vienna airport upon his return from Tehran. Although a few obstacles remain, a “decision was made to conclude and sign the agreement,” he said.
In Washington, the Obama administration cautiously welcomed Amano’s announcement, but several officials noted that similar agreements had fallen apart when Iranian officials refused to provide the promised access.
“It’s an agreement in principle that represents a step in the right direction,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “We will make judgments about Iran’s behavior based on actions.”
The Israeli government, which has threatened military strikes against Iran to stop what it sees as Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, was openly skeptical of the claim of a diplomatic breakthrough.
“The Iranians are trying to reach a ‘technical agreement,’ which will create the impression of progress in the talks,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the start of a Ministry of Defense meeting. By appearing to make concessions, Iran is seeking merely to deflect international pressure on itself, he said.
Neither Iran nor the IAEA provided details of the accord, although Amano spoke of progress on a “structural agreement” that laid out the terms under which Iran would give the agency information about its past nuclear research.
Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, spoke vaguely about what he said were “very good talks” with the U.N. nuclear agency. “God willing, we will have good cooperation in the future,” he added.
To some former U.S. officials and arms-control experts, the apparent progress at the Tehran meeting was a positive sign.
“Now the task is to reach agreement on specific, concrete proposals, followed by actions, that can help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
Current and former Obama administration officials acknowledged that the chances for a comprehensive agreement Wednesday were slim, given the complexity of the issues and the time needed for consultations between the negotiators and their governments. But several officials said they expected at least to have firm indications from Iran about its willingness to address Western concerns.
“One doesn’t need to see a breakthrough in these talks — it’s not realistic,” said Dennis Ross, who until last fall was President Obama’s chief adviser on Iran. “But you need to see indicators that they are willing to talk about some of these things.”
Warrick reported from Washington.