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UN's nuclear agency, Iran begin critical meeting ahead of Baghdad talks

Today's meeting between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iranian officials is meant to lay the groundwork for next week's critical meeting in Baghdad between Iran and the P5 + 1. 

Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS
Iran's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh arrives at the Iranian Anbassy for a meeting with IAEA officials in Vienna May 14. Two previous rounds of talks in Tehran early this year failed to make any notable progress, especially on the IAEA's request for access to a military site where it believes nuclear weapons-relevant research may have taken place.

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Iranian officials arrived in Vienna today to meet International Atomic Energy Agency officials in preparation for next week's Baghdad meeting on its nuclear program.

A senior United Nations official told Reuters at the outset of the meeting today that Iran must give IAEA inspectors access to information on its nuclear program and that this meeting will be a test of its "readiness" to discuss concerns about possible military elements of its nuclear program at the critical Baghdad meeting with the group known as P5 + 1 (The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). 

Bloomberg reports that the IAEA's request for access to Iran's Parchin military complex – rejected by Iran in February – may top the agenda. In a November 2011 IAEA report, the agency pointed to information from a member state that indicated Iran may have tested elements of a nuclear weapon at the complex. The agency last visited Parchin in 2004.

RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites

Based on satellite imagery of Parchin from early April, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said last week that Iran may be erasing evidence of nuclear weapons work at the facility. Images show "unidentified items lined up outside a rectangular building and what appears to be water flowing out of the structure," according to Bloomberg. Paul Brannan and David Albright of ISIS wrote that the cleanup may be preparation for a requested IAEA visit. 

Reuters adds that satellite images from previous months did not show "any similar activity... indicating it is not a regular occurrence."

Tehran rejected the insinuations in the study, Reuters reports. "They are joking with our nation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, as quoted by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). "It is not possible to 'wash' nuclear activities," he said.

Western diplomats told Reuters they don't expect Tehran to grant their request for access to Parchin. Iran wants a more comprehensive agreement with the IAEA before it allows its inspectors into the site. 

Stakes are high for next week's meeting in Baghdad. EU Foreign Policy head Catherine Ashton said on May 11 that she hoped "to achieve 'the beginnings of the end'" at the meeting, The New York Times reports.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reuters that the European Union wants proof that Iran is taking steps to reassure the international community it is not pursuing a military nuclear program and that if it fails to do so, the EU will consider further sanctions. "Now we wait to see some concrete steps and proposals from Iran," Mr. Hague told reporters. "Without that, of course we have sanctions we have imposed. They will not only be enforced but, over time, intensified."

Among other sanctions, Iran faces the July 1 implementation of an EU-wide ban on importing Iranian oil. 

Yesterday Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, warned against putting pressure on Iran, saying such actions could scuttle the Baghdad talks. "The era of a pressure strategy is ended. Any strategic miscalculations would endanger success at the Baghdad negotiations," he said, telling Western officials to refrain from making "unconstructive remarks," according to Reuters. 

The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Iran expects an easing of sanctions to accompany each of its concessions. One Iranian official said that Tehran's "minimum expectation" is a lifting of sanctions. But, as the Monitor notes, reversing or easing sanctions is a slow, "conservative" process, and it's unlikely that it could happen ahead of the Baghdad meeting.

Administration officials say that "sanctions relief is not on the table unless and until we see substantial concessions" from Iran, says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"I don't think there is really any give on the sanctions issue ... in part because in a political year, an election year, with a Congress that is very solidly behind these sanctions, it would be very difficult for the president to appear to be waffling on them at all," says Ms. Maloney.

"I do worry that there is a disconnect," says Maloney. "The Iranians from their perspective need something to demonstrate some sense of victory, and to persuade the skeptics within their own camp that there are rewards to be gained from cooperation, not just preventing any further pressure, but actually lifting some of the sense of siege."

RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites

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