Officials from the United States and five other powers — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — are expected to press Iran to accept strict curbs on its nuclear activities during the negotiations, which many diplomats and security experts see as a last chance to stave off a military confrontation.
Despite more conciliatory signals from Tehran in recent weeks — culminating with the inspection deal announced Tuesday — it was unclear whether Iran would agree to any new restrictions on a nuclear program that it consistently has said is for peaceful purposes.
“We’re clear-eyed going into this,” said a senior Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive preparations for the talks, which were scheduled to last one day. “The signs from Iran so far have been positive and different from what we have seen before. But Iran needs to show a seriousness and a clear willingness to get on to the substance of the issues.”
Tuesday’s apparent accord between Iran and the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency 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. While 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.”