VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. atomic watchdog accused Iran on Monday of hampering its work in the country by barring experienced nuclear inspectors, but Tehran flatly rejected the charge.
The dispute has deepened international concern about Iran’s nuclear programme, which Western powers suspect is aimed at developing atomic bombs. Iran denies this, saying it is enriching uranium only for generating electricity.
Iran says two inspectors it banned from entering the country in June had provided false information about its nuclear work, citing its right to refuse certain inspectors under its non-proliferation accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Iran’s repeated objection to the designation of inspectors with experience in Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle and facilities hampers the inspection process,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano told the U.N. agency’s board.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, told reporters: “I categorically reject this statement.”
But the U.S. envoy to the IAEA said the barring was a troubling development with the potential to “send a chill” through the ranks of nuclear inspectors.
It may also send a message that “if they do their jobs, if they repeat what they see ... they might be taken out and shot at dawn, metaphorically speaking,” Glyn Davies told reporters on the sidelines of the IAEA board meeting.
Signalling a desire for continuity at the IAEA at a time of increasingly strained ties with Tehran, Amano named a senior Iran expert and IAEA insider as its new top investigator at the closed-door board meeting.
Herman Nackaerts, who now oversees inspections in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East as well as south Asia and Africa, will succeed Olli Heinonen as head of the IAEA division which verifies that nuclear work in member states worldwide is not being diverted for military use.
Heinonen, a Finn, resigned as deputy director-general in charge of global nuclear safeguards in July for personal reasons after nearly 30 years at the Vienna-based body.
Nackaerts, 59, from Belgium, will take up the top inspection job in the midst of the public row over the barred inspectors.
Apart from those barred in June, Tehran cancelled access for a high-ranking Middle East inspector in 2006 and has objected to a number of other inspector designations in the past.
“I learned with great regret about Iran’s decision to object to the designation of two inspectors who recently conducted inspections in Iran,” Amano said.
He said he had full confidence in their professionalism and impartiality, according to a copy of his speech given to the 35-nation governing board.
“Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” the veteran Japanese diplomat said.
Soltanieh, who criticised the IAEA’s latest report on Iran as unbalanced and as damaging to its credibility, said the IAEA had more than 150 inspectors at its disposal for Iran.
“The problem is not the number of inspectors but the quality and experience,” Amano told a news conference.
His report showed Iran was pushing ahead with its nuclear work in defiance of tougher sanctions, and expressed growing frustration over what the IAEA sees as Iran’s failure to address concerns about possible military dimensions to its activities.
Relations between Iran and the IAEA have deteriorated since Amano took over as head of the agency in December.
He has taken a sharper approach on Iran than his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, saying in reports to the board since then that Iran could be trying to develop a nuclear-armed missile now, instead of only at some point in the past.
Iran has accused Amano of issuing misleading and politicised reports about its nuclear programme.