The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said new talks were set for Feb. 12, but that the latest round in Tehran did not yield permission by Iran to visit a military base at Parchin – a top priority declared by inspectors – nor a work plan to resolve other long-standing issues.
"We had two days of intensive discussions," IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts said upon return to Vienna on Friday. "Differences remain, so we could not finalize the structured approach to resolve the outstanding issues regarding possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program."
The setback comes after a year of effort to reach a framework deal between Iran and the IAEA. That process, however, has been conducted in the shadow of strategic nuclear talks between Iran and world powers known as the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany). Iranian diplomats have stated that they will resolve issues with the IAEA in the context of a broader Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal, which is meant to lay down parameters for Iran's nuclear work that ensure it can't push for an atomic bomb.
Three rounds of those P5+1 talks failed last spring. After a half-year lull, a fourth round had been expected by the end of this month.
Yet lack of agreement on a date and venue – and reports of only modest revision of the past P5+1 offer already rejected by Tehran, which required Iran to make several strategic moves first, before receiving any significant sanctions relief – have made that next round uncertain.
Iranian media have kept uncharacteristically quiet about the IAEA talks, with little reaction on Friday, the weekend in Iran. Earlier in the week Iran reiterated numerous previous statements by Iran's top religious authority, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, which forbid the making, stockpiling or using of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.
"There is nothing more important in defining the framework for our nuclear activities than the Leader's fatwas," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on the eve of the IAEA meeting. "This fatwa is our operational instruction."
Mr. Mehmanparast dismissed concerns about Parchin, saying activities at the military base "have nothing to do with nuclear activities." Inspectors have visited Parchin twice before, but now suspect that a different building in the sprawling complex may have been used in the past for implosion experiments that could apply to nuclear arms.
"Any issue that may exist can be overcome in meetings between representatives of Iran and the IAEA," Mehmanparast said, but after "Iran's nuclear rights are fully recognized and a specific agreement is reached."
After the previous visits to Parchin, Iran wants to work out an inspection arrangement that has a definite list of obligations by the Islamic Republic and an expected end date, so the process does not continue for years.
Iran also demands that it see evidence of past weapons-related work held by the IAEA, which Iran dismisses as forgeries from hostile intelligence agencies. Most of it has been provided by Israeli and US intelligence, but Iran has not been allowed to actually see it – a fact that has troubled IAEA relations with Iran for years, and which Mr. Nackaerts said before the Tehran meeting would be on the agenda.
Both Iran and the IAEA had noted progress at their last meeting in December, but the IAEA kept expectations low for the meeting this week.
"The outlook is not bright," IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said a week ago in Tokyo. "Talks with Iran don't proceed in a linear way. It's one step forward, two or three steps back.... So we can't say we have an optimistic outlook."
What the Ayatollah says
Concurrent with the talks, Ayatollah Khamenei separately gave a speech in which he stated that Iran would not be forced to capitulate over its nuclear program. Iran says peaceful nuclear power is an "inalienable right" for every signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The US has spearheaded severe sanctions by the EU and other allies to choke Iran's economy, oil exports, and central bank transactions.
"By [imposing] sanctions and pressures, the arrogant front is doing everything to force the Iranian nation to surrender, but this nation endures [all] hardships because it has realized the enemy's plot and tactic and strategic goal, and [therefore] it acts based on [that] proper understanding," Khamenei said on Wednesday, in a translation by state-run PressTV.
"Despite all pressure and enemy plots, after 34 years, the Islamic establishment is now respected, powerful, and influential in regional and international affairs," Khamenei said.
Nackaerts said at the start of the talks that the IAEA approached them "in a constructive spirit." He had added: "We hope we will be allowed to go to Parchin and if access is granted we will welcome the chance to do so. We are ready to go."