By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The United Nations nuclear watchdog says it will hold a second round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program.
A high-level delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna returned on February 1 after three days of talks in Tehran.
The agency later announced that a new meeting would take place on February 21-22 in the Iranian capital, with IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano saying dialogue was “essential to make progress on substantive issues.”
The IAEA cautiously praised the outcome of the trip but said there is “still a lot of work to be done” to ease international concerns about Tehran’s atomic program.
Herman Nackaerts, the deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who headed the mission to Iran, suggested after his arrival in Vienna that progress had been made in persuading Iranian officials to address Western concerns that Tehran is secretly working on a nuclear weapons program.
Nackaerts said Iran appears “committed” to cooperation with the IAEA. He said, however, that a return trip to Iran by agency inspectors is necessary to continue the agency’s probe of the Iranian program.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said ahead of the visit that the “onus is on Iran” to demonstrate that its nuclear activities are not weapon-related.
The IAEA in November said there were indications the Iranian nuclear program could have a military element. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
In a related development, U.S. intelligence officials have suggested that Iran may still be open to negotiations to resolve the nuclear standoff.
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said on January 31 that a combination of Western sanctions and diplomacy could still persuade Iran to abandon nuclear work aimed at weapons production or capacity.
Speaking to the U.S. Senate’s intelligence committee, Clapper said that Iranian leaders’ concern for national “security” and “prestige” opened a door for Western influence and meant a military outcome to the standoff was not inevitable.
In recent weeks, the United States and Europe have imposed a block of economic sanctions against Iran aimed at cutting off its lucrative energy sales on global markets.
U.S. CIA Director David Petraeus told U.S. senators on January 3 that the latest round of Western sanctions — combined with Iran’s growing inflation and unemployment — were having a “biting” effect on Iran.
Petraeus described Iranian leaders as focused on “regime survival” and unlikely to tolerate further deterioration of the country’s economic health.
The CIA chief cited Saudi Arabia’s move to increase its oil production in an attempt to fill the gap on world markets caused by international sanctions on Iran’s oil imports.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, however, has predicted that Iran’s economy will grow 8 percent over the next year, despite the sanctions.
Presenting his government’s annual budget to parliament on February 1, Ahmadinejad set out a $416 billion state budget, saying Iran’s gross domestic product was set to swell. The president offered no details, however, on how growth might occur.
Tensions over the nuclear program have mounted as Western governments have ratcheted up pressure on Tehran through oil and other sanctions, Israel has hinted at possible plans to intervene militarily, and Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil export route.