November 25, 2014 / 4:04 PM / 5 years ago

Extended Iran nuclear talks leave bomb investigation in limbo

VIENNA (Reuters) - A stalled U.N. watchdog investigation into allegations Iran conducted atomic bomb research looks unlikely to be revived by the decision to extend wider nuclear talks, diplomats and experts say.

While negotiations continue on a deal to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity — to lengthen the time needed should Tehran ever decide to assemble nuclear weapons — the International Atomic Energy Agency is still trying to conduct a separate, but related, inquiry into weapons research suspicions.

Western diplomats who accuse Iran of stonewalling the IAEA say full cooperation with the U.N. agency should be a condition for sanctions relief under the broader nuclear deal.

But when talks between Iran and six world powers were extended on Monday, there was no indication that there was any new requirement for Iran to engage with the IAEA before a possible comprehensive settlement is reached.

“Can Iran now stall with impunity until July 1, 2015?” asked one Western diplomat, referring to the talks’ new deadline.

The IAEA has for years sought access to sites and officials in Iran to clarify intelligence reports, contained in its 2011 report, indicating activities with possible relevance to atomic bombs, mostly happening until about a decade ago but some of which, the agency said, might be ongoing.

Iran denies any plan to develop nuclear weapons and says the accusations were forged by its enemies. It has declined to give IAEA inspectors free rein.

LEVERAGE

A senior U.S. official said the possible military dimensions — or PMD in diplomats’ jargon — of the nuclear programme must be addressed for there to be a deal to lift the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

“We’ve always said that any agreement must resolve the issue to our satisfaction,” the official said last week.

Another diplomat said: “The leverage is the sanctions.”

But many experts say the historical allegations may never be clarified and efforts should focus on ensuring that weapons development, if it happened, has been halted.

Cliff Kupchan, of risk consultancy Eurasia Group, predicted “more deadlock” for the IAEA investigation.

“The best we can hope for on PMD is no future activity. I just don’t think they’ll talk about the past to a meaningful extent,” Kupchan said.

Ali Vaez, of think-tank International Crisis Group, said it would be in Iran’s interest to cooperate more closely with the IAEA probe, to blunt criticism by sceptics who say Iran is just using the diplomacy to play for time:

“If the extension has provided more time for the detractors to scuttle the diplomatic process, Iran’s lack of cooperation with the agency will provide them with more ammunition.”

There may still be some progress in the inquiry in coming months but Iran will only really open up to the IAEA after a political accord with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, Vaez said.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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