Senior UN nuclear inspectors are expected to visit Iran "quite soon" to discuss their growing concerns about possible military aspects to its nuclear program, an International Atomic Energy Agency official said on Tuesday.
Such a trip would come at a time of escalating tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions with European nations preparing for a embargo on Iranian oil and Tehran threatening to retaliate by blocking Gulf oil shipping lanes vital to the global economy.
Iran, which has stoked Western suspicions by starting to enrich uranium inside a mountain bunker, last month said it had renewed an invitation for a special IAEA team to travel to the country.
The Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog and Iran "are working on the timing of a possible visit," the agency official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
The delegation would probably be headed by Herman Nackaerts, director of IAEA safeguards inspections worldwide. Lower-level inspectors regularly monitor Iran's declared nuclear sites but their movements are otherwise restricted.
Iran's latest overture to the UN agency, which has long urged Tehran to address disputes about its nuclear agenda, coincides with a toughening of Western sanctions imposed on Iran over its atomic activities.
The Islamic Republic has also signaled readiness to resume talks with major powers that have been frozen for a year.
Western diplomats tend to see such initiatives as attempts by Iran, a major oil producer, to buy time for its nuclear program, without heeding UN demands to curb activity that could be put to making atomic bombs.
"They talk about a dialogue but once a dialogue starts they are going to say no. So it won't get very far," one Western envoy in the Austrian capital said.
Iran has come under increased pressure since the IAEA reported in November that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon and that secret research to that end may be continuing, charges the country denies.
The Islamic state's decision to begin enriching uranium to a higher fissile purity of 20 percent at the Fordow underground site, confirmed by the IAEA on Monday, further fuelled Western alarm about its intentions and underlined Tehran's defiance.
Iran to remove 'ambIguities'
Uranium normally enriched to 3.5 percent can be used to fuel nuclear reactors, Iran's stated aim. It provides the fissile core of atomic bombs if refined to 90 percent, which the West suspects is Iran's ultimate intention.
"It's part of the slow drip, drip, drip of them putting together a nuclear weapon's capability that could withstand military strikes," David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security think tank, said of the Fordo move.
Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, aimed at generating electricity and producing medical isotopes to treat cancer patients.
Previous visits to Iran by senior IAEA officials have failed to make significant progress towards resolving questions about the nature of Iran's nuclear program, a dispute which has the potential to ignite a wider conflict in the Middle East.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has made clear that any new visit by his senior officials to Tehran must address the agency's increased concerns about potential military dimensions to the nuclear program.
Suspicions have been stoked by Iranian secrecy and lack of full cooperation with inspectors from the IAEA, whose job is to verify that countries' nuclear activities are peaceful.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, last month told Reuters the visit would aim to "work towards removing the ambiguities and resolving the issue," referring to the nuclear dispute.
It was language Soltanieh has used before with respect to high-level IAEA-Iran talks, and a Western diplomat voiced skepticism: "We haven't seen any indications that Iran is really serious."
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