Can we talk our way out? Unlikely

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, February 23, 2012

The visit of IAEA inspectors to Tehran this week is the second of its kind. For years, Iran has refused to give them access to a number of suspected nuclear sites or to allow them to interview key personnel working on its nuclear programme.

The last IAEA report, published in November 2011 (the next one is due next week), offered the clearest assessment to date of the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme. Cornered by such revelations and international pressure, it agreed to a second IAEA delegation.

With mounting pressure on Iran from international and Western sanctions, an economy in freefall, hyper-inflation and a currency that has lost more than 50 per cent of its value in the past three months, one would expect Iran to be more compliant.

That is certainly the view in Brussels and Washington - where European negotiators and the US administration are both convinced that economic pressure is finally bearing fruit.

Iran, after all, has finally responded to Western demands to return to talks and this time, if leaks about the contents of an Iranian letter sent to EU foreign policy representative Baroness Catherine Ashton are accurate, Iran is ready to address the nuclear agenda without preconditions.

The dynamics of the two visits by the IAEA inspectors tell a different story. As in the past, they arrived in Iran with hopes of finally being allowed to do their job, but discovered that, as usual, Iran had no intention of co-operating. After returning to Vienna empty-handed, inspectors got a second chance this week, only to be rebuffed once again.

Their frustration and Iran's stonewalling were compounded by its belligerent tone and defiant actions. A few weeks before their first visit, Iran announced that it was transferring uranium to the Fordow underground enrichment site near Qom. And between visits, Iran proceeded to inform the world it had produced its first indigenous uranium fuel rods and proclaimed it had produced a new generation of faster centrifuges, to be installed at Fordow.

If these actions are accurate reflections of technological advances rather than bluster, Iran may be accelerating its programme - and these visits, like the nine years of talks, may not portend a compromise, but rather more likely some unpleasant surprises.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 1:50pm, February 23 2012