Vienna: The UN nuclear agency is forming a special Iran team, drawing together sleuths in weapons technology, intelligence analysis, radiation and other fields of expertise as it seeks to add muscle to a probe of suspicions that Tehran worked secretly on atomic arms, diplomats said.
Creating a unit focused on only one country is an unusual move for the International Atomic Energy Agency, reflecting the priority the UN nuclear watchdog is attaching to Iran amid fears that it is moving closer to the ability to make nuclear weapons.
It also indicates frustration by top agency officials over Iran`s refusal to cooperate with IAEA experts who are trying to follow up on suspicions that Tehran was or is secretly working on an arms program.
Iran says such allegations are based on evidence fabricated by the United States and Israel and insists its nuclear program is meant only for making reactor fuel, medical isotopes and peaceful research. But it refuses to give up uranium enrichment, which can produce both reactor fuel and the core of nuclear warheads, despite offers of fuel from abroad. And its stonewalling of the IAEA probe has increased concerns that it has something to hide.
The agency`s move comes at a crucial time. With both the agency and international diplomatic efforts stalemated in attempts to engage the Islamic Republic on its nuclear program, fears are growing that tensions could spill over into armed conflict.
Israeli leaders have been loudly expressing impatience over Western diplomatic and economic moves to deter Iran and increasingly talk of attacking its nuclear facilities, though some analysts believe the sabre-rattling is a bluff to increase pressure on Tehran. Iranian leaders have rejected Israel`s warnings, threatening punishing retaliation.
The four diplomats, who demanded anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the restructuring plans, spoke to a news agency ahead of a renewed attempt on Friday by the agency to breach Iranian resistance to its requests for access to sites, documents and people linked to the suspected secret weapons-related work.
One of diplomats likened the restructuring plan to the agency`s Iraq "Action Team" the squad of experts who uncovered components of Saddam Hussein`s fledgling nuclear-weapons program in the 1990s.
That unit, however, had broad on-the-ground access under UN-mandated inspections. That`s lacking in the case of Iran, which allows agency inspectors access only to its known nuclear activities and has for years blocked its attempts to probe alleged evidence of secret nuclear weapons research and development.
Under the planned reorganisation, said one of the diplomats, a "dedicated team" of about 20 experts will be drawn from the main IAEA pool to focus solely on the agency`s Iran investigation.