The five permanent members of the UN Security Council put pressure on Iran on Thursday to allay international concern about its nuclear program, and said they expected talks with Tehran to lead to concrete steps toward a negotiated solution.
Iran and major powers resumed talks in mid-April in Istanbul after more than a year - a chance to ease tension and help to avert the threat of a new Middle East war. They are to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad.
In a joint statement issued at a nuclear conference in Vienna, the United States, France, Russia, China and Britain pressed Tehran to agree urgently with the UN nuclear watchdog on access to “relevant sites and information”.
“We remain concerned by Iran’s persistent failure to comply with its obligations under UNSC (UN Security Council) resolutions,” the statement said, referring to repeated demands that Tehran curb its disputed nuclear program.
The West says Iran’s nuclear work is a cover for developing atomic bombs and wants verifiable assurances to the contrary from Tehran - for example, by accepting much more intrusive UN nuclear inspections and limiting its enrichment capacity.
Iran denies having a weapons agenda, saying it is enriching uranium solely for peaceful energy purposes.
Western diplomats say Iran appears to be stonewalling a request by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for access to a key military site, Parchin, where it believes military-related nuclear research may have taken place.
The diplomats say they suspect Iran may be “sanitizing” the site southeast of Tehran of any incriminating evidence before UN inspectors can visit, a suspicion Tehran dismisses.
In Switzerland, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano told Reuters that his inspectors wanted to go to Parchin “rather sooner than later” and reiterated that the UN agency had recently noticed what referred to as some “activities” there.
“We would also like to have access to, not only the site, but information and people related to Parchin,” Mr. Amano said on the sidelines of a symposium in the town of St. Gallen. “I hope that these activities will not make our verification difficult.”
He did not elaborate but his choice of words has been interpreted by Western diplomats as an indication that the agency thought Iran might be cleaning up the site.
Last November the IAEA issued a report detailing what it said were suspected Iranian research and development activities relevant to manufacturing nuclear weapons.
The UN agency wants Iran to address the questions raised in the report about possible military dimensions to Tehran’s nuclear work. Iran has dismissed the allegations as fabricated.
The IAEA and Iran will hold a new round of discussions on May 14-15 in Vienna in an attempt to make progress in the IAEA’s technical investigation, just over a week before the broader political negotiations take place in the Iraqi capital.
Two previous meetings between Iran and the agency earlier this year failed to make any major headway, especially on the issue of Parchin.
“We hope we can make progress,” Mr. Amano said. But asked whether he had any indication that access would now be granted by Iran, Mr. Amano said: “I do not have a concrete indication that we would have access to Parchin.”
Thursday’s statement by the five powers - which together with Germany are involved in nuclear talks with Iran - said they were seeking a “sustained process of serious dialogue”, where both sides can take urgent action to build confidence.
“We expect that subsequent meetings ... will lead to concrete steps toward a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” it added.
“We will be guided in these efforts (talks with Iran) by the step-by-step approach and the principle of reciprocity,” the five powers said.
Western states have imposed expanded, more biting sanctions against Iran’s energy and banking sectors since the beginning of this year. The European Union is preparing to slap a total embargo on the purchase of Iranian crude oil in July.
Iran said on Wednesday it would seek an end to sanctions over its nuclear activities at the Baghdad talks, reflecting a hardening public line in the Islamic Republic that an end to sanctions is vital to the success of the negotiations.
However, the United States and its allies have made clear Tehran must take action to allay their concerns about its nuclear ambitions before they can consider relaxing sanctions.