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The IAEA said the Islamic Republic agreed to provide long unanswered information about its nuclear energy program
February 9, 20144:39PM ET
IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards, Tero Varjoranta (R), and Iran's new ambassador to the organization Reza Najafi (L) shaking hands after reaching an agreement, in Tehran on Feb. 9, 2014.AMIR POURMAND/AFP/Getty Images
In a significant move, Iran agreed Sunday to provide additional information sought by the U.N. nuclear agency in its long-stalled probe of suspicions that Tehran may have worked on nuclear weapons.
Iran insists it never wanted or tried to develop such arms, and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was pushing ahead with its investigation with expectations that Tehran would continue to assert that all of its activities it is ready to reveal were meant for peaceful nuclear use.
Still, the IAEA's announcement that Tehran was ready to "provide information and explanations" for experiments in a type of detonator that the agency says could be used to trigger a nuclear explosion appeared to be the latest indication that Iran's new political leadership is seeking to ease tensions over its nuclear program.
The development — although limited for now — marked a step forward in an international push to settle a decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran says this is peaceful, while the West fears that Iran wants to develop atomic arms.
The deal could also send a positive signal to separate, high-stakes negotiations between Iran and six world powers which are due to start on Feb. 18 in Vienna, aimed at reaching a broader diplomatic settlement with the Islamic state after last month's interim accord was struck.
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The IAEA mentioned its concerns about detonator development three years ago as part of a list of activities it said could indicate that Tehran had secretly worked on nuclear weapons. The technology had "limited civilian and conventional military applications," it said back then, adding: "given their possible application in a nuclear explosive device ... Iran development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern."
The detonator issue was not on top of the list of the 2011 IAEA report of possible nuclear weapons concerns, with the agency mentioning other suspected activities that it said appeared to have had no civilian applications.
As the two sides met over the weekend in Tehran, diplomats said that Iran now was ready to address agency questions about its suspected nuclear weapons work after years of dismissing the issue.
But they also said that the process would get underway only slowly. The fact that the Iranians were ready to engage on the detonator issue first reflected caution by both sides after more than six years of stalemate on the probe, with the agency focused on a step-by-step approach, starting with less sensitive issues and progressing to the arms-related queries.
An IAEA statement Sunday said Iran had complied with the first steps of that deal and both sides on the weekend signed off on an additional "seven practical measures." Beyond the detonator experiments, they included Iranian agreement to provide "mutually agreed relevant information" on a site where Tehran experimented with laser uranium enrichment as well as a visit to the site where such work took place.
Iranian experts abandoned the experiments years ago and opted instead to develop their centrifuge-based enrichment program. The IAEA reported in 2008 that the laser facilities had been taken over by a private company that said it had no plans to enrich uranium.
Three years later, however, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserted that Iran still possessed uranium laser enrichment technology — a claim that the IAEA has not been able to prove or disprove.
While uranium enrichment is not directly linked to the IAEA's weapons probe, any hidden enrichment work would be a key worry for the United States and its allies. Iran says it is enriching only to make reactor fuel, but uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels is used as the payload of nuclear missiles.
Washington and five other world powers meet Feb. 18 in Vienna to work to turn the an initial agreement into a permanent pact curbing Iran's uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. Both sides say those talks are off to a promising start, but the U.S. and its allies also are looking to the IAEA-Iran meetings for additional signals from Iran's new political leadership.