By GEORGE JAHN
The Associated Press
Monday, June 25, 2007; 2:28 PM
VIENNA, Austria -- Acting on a request from Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday it will send a team to Tehran to work jointly on a plan meant to clear up suspicions about the Islamic republic's nuclear activities.
The invitation, conveyed Sunday by a senior Iranian envoy and made public Monday by the agency, was portrayed by some diplomats as a positive step in IAEA attempts to learn more about past activities that could point toward a weapons program.
But the U.S. said it was skeptical.
"I don't think Iran's track record is particularly noteworthy or particularly likely to give me or anyone else confidence that anything will come of these discussions," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.
The invitation was linked to a recent Iranian offer to stop stonewalling the agency in its probe of more than two decades of Iranian nuclear activities _ clandestine until 2002 when they were revealed by a dissident group.
If followed through, it could generate international good will that might blunt the threat of new U.N. sanctions and increase pressure on the U.S. and its closest allies to compromise on their insistence for a full enrichment freeze.
Besides demanding such a freeze _ and answers to the IAEA's questions _ the Security Council wants Iran to stop building a plutonium-producing reactor.
The country's refusal to provide answers originally prompted the council to get involved. Since December, it has imposed two sets of sanctions and has begun informal consultations on new penalties.
Iran says it wants to develop enrichment only to generate power. But its stonewalling of the IAEA has heightened suspicions that it wants to enrich uranium for use as the fissile core of warheads.
Meeting Sunday with IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani "invited the IAEA to send a team to Tehran to develop an action plan for resolving outstanding issues related to Iran's past nuclear program," said agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "The IAEA intends to send a team as early as practicable."
Iran's offer to deal with outstanding questions was also the focus of talks Saturday between Larijani and top EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana.
A European diplomat said the decision to invite an IAEA delegation was reached at those talks and that Larijani had asked for 120 days to clear up ambiguities _ a span that Solana rejected as too long.
Asked what Solana considered reasonable, the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential, told The Associated Press: "Weeks _ and not very many."
Iran has said before that it was ready to cooperate with the IAEA on the issue of unexplained past activities but has yet to deliver.
Still, a diplomat familiar with Iran's nuclear file described the offer as "the first break in the (nuclear) stalemate in months." The diplomat also spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
The unanswered questions include: traces of enriched uranium at a facility linked to the military _ a possible sign of a hidden weapons program _ and possession of documents showing how to mold uranium metal into the form of missile warheads.
Multilateral talks with Iran broke off in August 2005 after Tehran rejected an offer of political and economic incentives in exchange for long-term enrichment suspension.
Since then, Iran has repeatedly said an enrichment freeze was out of the question, while the six world powers insisted they would accept nothing less as before resuming negotiations.
But there are recent indications of potential differences on the enrichment issue. U.S. and European diplomats and government employees told the AP last week that Britain, France and Germany are informally debating the possibility of a partial freeze.
With permanent members Russia and China only reluctantly backing sanctions, any loss of European support for a full freeze would leave Washington with the hard choice of either backing down or being isolated.
Germany was supportive, France opposed and Britain noncommittal, the officials said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday dismissed as "chatter" discussions among U.S. allies about a new approach.
But an American official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential, told the AP "there is some truth" to the reports. And the European diplomat said that any serious attempt by Iran to answer outstanding questions "will have an impact" on the enrichment issue.