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World powers watch IAEA talks for signs of Iranian flexibility

Today's meeting between Iran and the IAEA to set up a framework to investigate a controversial Iranian military site is also seen as a warmup for Moscow talks later this month.

Ronald Zak/AP
Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ali Asghar Soltanieh (r.) arrives for talks with the IAEA at the International Center, in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, June 8. The UN nuclear agency has started new talks with Iran aimed at getting access to what it suspects was the site of secret tests to make nuclear arms.

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World powers will be watching closely today as Iran and the United Nations nuclear watchdog meet in Vienna, looking for signs of how their own talks with the Islamic Republic later this month might go.

If Iran appears willing in today's meeting to make concessions, it could be a sign that they will approach talks in Moscow on June 18 with a more conciliatory attitude, making it possible that the Islamic Republic and the  "P5 + 1" ( (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council: the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) will be able to find some common ground. 

Last month's anticipated P5 + 1 talks with Iran in Baghdad began with high hopes but ended with little concrete progress, and so far there's been no indication either side is willing to back down from its irreconcilable starting points. Iran has requested an easing of strict sanctions in order for talks to go forward, while Western powers are requesting that it reduce its nuclear fuel production for "some modest givebacks, such as spare airplane parts," which are currently blocked by sanctions, according to the Associated Press

With today's talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency is hoping to secure an agreement to allow immediate inspections of the Parchin military complex, where the agency suspects that tests related to nuclear weapons development took place. Iran insists the accusations are "forged and fabricated," Reuters reports.

Both the IAEA and Iran say they've laid out the terms for the investigation, but the US is skeptical that Iran will actually permit the level of investigation needed to reassure it that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Reuters reports.

"I'm not optimistic," Robert Wood, the acting U.S. envoy to the IAEA, told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. agency's governing board. "I certainly hope that an agreement will be reached but I'm not certain Iran is ready."

His skepticism was reinforced by defiant remarks by Soltanieh, who accused the U.N. body on Wednesday of acting like a Western-manipulated spy service and said that Iran's military activities were none of its business.

The Iranian envoy said Iran would "not permit our national security to be jeopardized," suggesting it might limit the scope of the U.N. inspectors' investigation.

A European diplomat said Soltanieh's remarks signaled that Iran would be in no mood to compromise in Friday's Vienna talks.

Earlier this week, the IAEA acknowledged a series of satellite photos of the Parchin complex that appeared to show evidence of a massive clean-up effort – demolished buildings, use of water in the area, and recently moved soil and fences – ratcheting up pressure on Iran to allow the investigation in order to alleviate Western suspicions about its purportedly civilian nuclear energy program.

If Iran agrees to a framework for investigating Parchin ahead of the Moscow talks, it could give the negotiations some much-needed flexibility. There is substantial distance between two parties' negotiating points right now – "Diamonds in return for peanuts,” as former nuclear negotiator for Iran Hossein Mousavian described them to AP.

According to a separate AP report, Chinese leader Hu Jintao urged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a meeting today to arrive at the next talks willing to truly talk.

“China hopes the Iranian side can weigh up the situation, take a flexible and pragmatic approach, have serious talks with all six related nations, and enhance dialogues and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency so as to ensure the tensions can be eased through negotiations,” Hu told Ahmadinejad, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

China, along with Russia, has been Iran's staunchest supporter in the P5 + 1 talks. It has opposed new sanctions on Iran as well as unilateral efforts to pressure Iran into concessions.

The only thing Iran and the P5 + 1 have in common right now is concern that a failure to reach an agreement would renew Israel's calls for a military strike on Iran, AP reports.

“This is both a poker game and a chess match on all sides,” said Bruno Tertrais, senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “There’s bluffing like with poker. There’s the effort to plot several moves ahead like in chess.”

“The only real tactic agreement, it seems, is that nobody wants the talks to fall apart,” he added. “They want — they need — to find a way to keep them going.”

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