OFFERING immunity or an easing of the sanctions pressure may be the only way — if there is one at all — to coax Iran to end years of stonewalling a UN watchdog investigation into suspected nuclear weapons research in the country.
Any such initiative would likely need to come from world powers as part of a broader diplomatic thrust to defuse the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, leaving the investigation by the UN atomic agency dependent on how those talks develop.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has failed in a series of high-profile rounds of discussions in the last six months to persuade Tehran to give it access to sites, officials and documents it says it needs for the long-stalled inquiry. The roller-coaster negotiations have underlined the IAEA's limited power to make Iran cooperate with it, suggesting Tehran will do so only if it gets something in return elsewhere and fueling Western suspicions that it is playing for time. "It looks to me now that the IAEA-Iran track isn't going to go anywhere unless there is progress made in the talks between Iran and the powers," senior researcher Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.
Iran seems to be using its discussions with the IAEA — at times raising hopes for a deal, then dashing them — to gain leverage in its separate meetings with the powers that have made little headway since they resumed in April after a 15-month gap.
The six powers — the United States, France, Russia, Germany, Britain and China — also want Iran's full cooperation with the UN watchdog. But their more immediate demand is that Iran stop atomic activity that takes it closer to potential bomb material.
Tehran may also require assurances that, if it eventually does agree to give UN inspectors greater freedom to carry out their work, any incriminating evidence they unearth will not be used against it. Iran denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop the capability to make atom bombs. To help break the deadlock, Iran should be given "a grace period with no adverse consequences in case their full transparency with IAEA inspectors reveal past wrongdoing," said former chief U.N. nuclear inspector Pierre Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said this should be offered and guaranteed by the powers.
“Personally I see no problem with immunity for the past,” said a senior Western diplomat, who follows the nuclear issue closely but is not involved in negotiations with Tehran. “But it has to be verifiable. The models are South Africa and Libya. I fear Iran will not accept such true transparency,” the envoy said, referring to decisions years ago by those two countries to abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions.
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the relationship between Iran and the IAEA had become "hostage to the nuclear brinkmanship" of Tehran and the world powers.
A bullet-point presentation of Tehran's negotiating position published by Iranian media indicated that it expects an easing of sanctions for "transparently" working with the UN agency.
"We are in a chicken and egg conundrum, where Iran's nuclear crisis cannot be resolved without the IAEA giving Iran a clean slate, but that will not happen until the crisis is resolved," Vaez said.
SIPRI's Kile said he believed Iran needed "something positive and tangible in return" for cooperating with the IAEA, perhaps in the area of sanctions. "There is another school of thought which is: Iran is simply stalling for time ... and this is basically a way of keeping the discussions going, forestalling military action and allowing their nuclear program to advance," Kile said.
As Iran stonewalls the IAEA inquiry, Western diplomats say, satellite images show what appears to be a clean-up of a military site, Parchin, where UN inspectors believe Iran has carried out experiments relevant for developing nuclear weapons.