Saturday, July 14, 2007

VIENNA, Austria — In major concessions to international demands, Iran has agreed to answer lingering questions about its nuclear experiments and will let U.N. inspectors return to a plutonium-producing reactor it is building, the International Atomic Energy Agency said yesterday.

The decision to cooperate more fully with the U.N. nuclear watchdog appears designed to weaken a U.S. push for tough new U.N. Security Council sanctions over Iran’s nuclear activities, which Western countries suspect are a cover for a weapons program.

Access to the heavy-water research reactor outside the industrial city of Arak is key to any IAEA review of Iran’s nuclear activities, because the reactor will produce plutonium once completed sometime in the next decade.

The Security Council has demanded that Iran stop construction at the Arak project, as well as halt uranium enrichment, because both plutonium and enriched uranium can be used in the fissile core of a warhead.

Iranian officials and IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen agreed this week that agency inspectors would visit the Arak reactor by the end of July, the IAEA said.

Iran, which says it only wants peaceful nuclear energy, promised the concessions in a meeting this week between Iranian officials and a senior IAEA delegation, the agency said.

Iran also has scaled back its enrichment of uranium, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said Monday, although it is still refusing to freeze that enrichment, a key international demand.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in a statement published in Tunisia’s Assabah newspaper that he was optimistic about international discussions on his country’s nuclear program and that Iran had entered a “new phase” in its relations with the IAEA.

The IAEA has been concerned about indications that Iran could be pursuing nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials have refused to answer questions about their programs for years, leaving the IAEA unable to determine the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s refusal to cooperate prompted the Security Council to impose two sets of sanctions on Tehran over the nuclear standoff.

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