Iran and IAEA resume nuclear talks

Discussions were expected to broach sensitive military-related issues

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Reza Najafi, holds a press conference in Vienna on Nov. 29, 2013 concerning nuclear negotiations.
Kyodo via AP Images

Iran resumed talks on its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Saturday, the official IRNA news agency said, in discussions that had been expected to broach sensitive military-related issues.

A spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the meeting had been constructive and another session would take place Sunday, IRNA reported.

The IAEA's investigation is focused on the question of whether Iran sought atomic bomb technology in the past and, if it did, to determine whether such work has since stopped.

Tehran has rejected the accusations of weaponization-related work as baseless and said it will cooperate with the IAEA to clear up any "ambiguities." Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.

Reza Najafi, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, represented Iran in the discussions, while the team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog was led by deputy IAEA director general Tero Varjoranta, IRNA said.

Kamalvandi was reported on Friday as saying that Iran's aim was "to answer the IAEA's questions" at the talks.

Saturday's meeting comes 10 days before Tehran and a group of world powers, building on a landmark interim deal that took effect last month, begin talks on a long-term accord on Iran's nuclear aspirations that would avert the threat of a Middle East war.

Although separate, the IAEA's inquiry is closely aligned with the interim deal struck between Tehran and the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Diplomats are cautiously optimistic that after Saturday's talks, the team of IAEA inspectors will be able to show some progress in obtaining Iran's cooperation.

Western diplomats hope an accord will lead to Iran scaling back its nuclear program sufficiently to deny it the capability to assemble a nuclear weapon anytime soon.

Under an agreement signed in November, the IAEA has already visited a heavy water production plant and a uranium mine in Iran. However, those first steps did not go to the heart of its investigation, and Western diplomats will watch Saturday's meeting closely to see whether the next phase achieves that.

Iran-IAEA ties have improved since last year's election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as president of Iran on a platform to ease the country's international isolation.

Ayatollah's 'balancing act'

Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Leader warned Saturday that the U.S. would overthrow the Iranian government if it could, adding that Washington had a "controlling and meddlesome" attitude toward the Islamic Republic.

In a speech commemorating the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the U.S. is fundamentally Iran's enemy, even as he defended his country's continuing talks to settle a decade-old dispute about the country's nuclear program.

"American officials publicly say they do not seek regime change in Iran," Khamenei told army officers in Tehran. "That's a lie. They would not hesitate a moment if they could do it."

But Iran's most powerful leader also called on critics of Rouhani to be fair and give him time to pursue engagement with the outside world, including the U.S. and the European Union.

"No more than a few months have passed since the (Rouhani) government took office," he said in comments posted on his website, "Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly. Critics should show tolerance toward the government," he said.

Khamenei's support is crucial for Rouhani's diplomatic success in negotiations. Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera that Khamenei is using his office to create a "balancing act" between the nuclear negotiations under Rouhani’s leadership, and opposition forces within his security, intelligence, and military apparatus. "He does not want to appear too eager to support these negotiations, while he has given Rouhani full authority to do so," he said.  

But Dabashi added that Iran's reputed paranoia should not discredit Khamenei's concerns, which are not new. "The fact that he and his regime are paranoid does not mean that from day one of the Islamic Republic certain forces within the U.S. have not sought regime change," he said. "He is not totally off the mark in making that assertion, as he habitually does, but this time the statement has a more political currency."

Khamenei made no direct mention of the talks between Iran and world powers, but he said that in dealing with "enemies," Iran should be prepared to change tactics but not compromise on its main principles.

He also urged Iran not to pin hopes for economic recovery on the sanctions relief from the landmark interim deal signed on Nov. 24.

"The only solution to the country's economic problems is to employ (Iran's) infinite domestic capacities, not to pin hopes on the lifting of sanctions," he said. "No expectations from the enemy."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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