The high-profile visit from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presents Iran with the first formal opportunity to rebut specific allegations of past weapons-related work since they were made public in an agency report in November.
The Islamic Republic has for years dismissed the documents those allegations are based upon as forgeries created by hostile intelligence agencies, aimed at besmirching a peaceful energy program. But now that talk of a US-Israeli war against Iran has gained momentum, in concert with an array of crippling sanctions, Iran says it will address those allegations.
"We are very optimistic about the outcome of the IAEA delegation's visit to Iran.... Their questions will be answered during this visit," Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday.
"We have nothing to hide and Iran has no clandestine [nuclear] activities," he said. "Of course I do not mean that a miracle will happen overnight, but you know a long journey starts with the first step."
Officials sought to reinforce that positive message today, by stating that the IAEA mission was there at Tehran's invitation, and was “in fact a proof of Iran’s good intention,” said senior lawmaker Parviz Sorouri, according to Fars News.
The stakes are high for the inspectors' visit. The next IAEA report is due within weeks, and in the past month the US and European Union have both imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran that target its central bank and the lifeblood of its economy, its oil exports, in a bid to curb Iran's nuclear work.
Protesters turn out for IAEA arrival at Tehran airport
The head of the IAEA team in Iran says their aim is to "resolve all the outstanding issues with Iran." Those include weapons-related studies – their "systematic" nature apparently halted in late 2003, according to the IAEA – which range from high-explosives testing to reengineering the warhead of a Shahab-3 missile to fit a specific, possibly nuclear, payload.
"In particular we hope that Iran will engage with us on our concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program," the IAEA deputy director for safeguards, Herman Nackaerts, said before leaving Vienna on Sunday.
A group of Iranians – of a type often associated with pro-regime basiji ideologues, a few covering their faces and carrying placards in English which read "Nuclear energy is our right" – turned out at the Imam Khomeini airport for the IAEA team's arrival Sunday.
They held portraits of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the latest of at least four nuclear scientists assassinated in Iran over two years. Senior figures in the regime accuse Israel's Mossad of the killings, and the IAEA of divulging information about its nuclear specialists that resulted in their deaths.
Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, on Sunday told the IAEA to conduct its work in a "logical ... technical" manner.
"This visit is a test for the IAEA. The route for further cooperation will be open if the team carries out its duties professionally," said Mr. Larijani. "Otherwise, if the IAEA turns into a tool [to pressure Iran], then Iran will have no choice but to consider a new framework in its ties with the agency."
Formal nuclear talks between Iran and world powers broke down a year ago in Istanbul. Both sides now say they want them to resume them, but no date or even agenda has been established.
What is known about Iran nuclear program
The November IAEA report was billed as a "game changer" before it was published. Based on more than 1,000 pages of data acquired from the United States in 2005, the nuclear watchdog agency said it had "serious concerns" about Iran's work – especially some modeling and other critical design work it says may have continued at least until 2009.
But former IAEA inspectors have questioned the veracity of the documents, saying that some once dismissed as unreliable appear to have been recycled to step up accusations against Iran.
The IAEA report confirmed – as has every quarterly IAEA safeguards report on Iran for nearly a decade – that the agency detected no diversion of nuclear material for military purposes, and that Iran's known nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment remain under strict IAEA watch.
Separately, two US National Intelligence Estimates on Iran, the latest in February 2011, have concluded that Iran halted weapons-related work in late 2003, and has so far neither resumed such work, nor made a decision to do so.
Speaking again to CBS yesterday, however, Mr. Panetta said the US was watching Iran closely, suggesting that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in a year if it chose to do so – though it might be another two or three years before Iran had a missile or other delivery vehicle for such a bomb. "If ... we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop them," he told 60 Minutes.
The IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has said that in 2012, Iran is "the most important" issue on his agenda.
"I am fully committed to working constructively with Iran and I trust that Iran will approach our forthcoming discussions in an equally constructive spirit," Mr. Amano told the IAEA board in Vienna on Jan. 19.
Higher-enriched uranium to be used in 'coming months'
Despite the increasing pressure, it has been largely business as usual for Iran, which is planning to unveil new military equipment in ceremonies leading up to the 33-year anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11.
And although UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to halt all enrichment activity until it resolves IAEA concerns, Salehi on Monday said that Iran in "coming months" would turn its growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel for its small medical reactor in Tehran – a difficult step that would mark significant technical know-how.
Though still far from the 90 percent required for any weapon, the material is higher than the 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium which makes up the bulk of Iran’s efforts.
Today, Iran's English-language PressTV made little mention of the IAEA team in Iran, instead topping its news with video footage of heavy-handed police arrests of hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters in Oakland, CA.
Those protesters "burned the American flag," PressTV reported. It began another news item about Mr. Panetta's statement yesterday, that all options were on the table regarding Iran's nuclear program, with the words: "The US has once again threatened Iran...."