UN nuclear inspectors began a critical mission to Iran on Sunday to probe allegations of a secret atomic weapons program amid escalating Western economic pressures and warnings about safeguarding Gulf oil shipments from possible Iranian blockades.
The inspectors received a frigid welcome as they were greeted by a dozen Iranian hard-liners carrying photos of slain nuclear expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport early Sunday.
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Iranian state media allege that Roshan, a chemistry expert and director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, was interviewed by IAEA inspectors before being killed earlier this month in a targeted bomb attack that Iran claims is part of an Israeli-led covert campaign of sabotage and slayings.
Not-so-welcoming protestors (Photo: AP)
Roshan was at least the fourth member of Iran's scientific community to be killed in apparent assassinations.
In Vienna, the IAEA said it does not know Roshan and has never talked to him.
Iran also has accused the IAEA in the past of security leaks that expose its scientists and their families to the threat of assassination by the US and Israel.
The ISNA news agency reported Sunday that the Islamic Republic said it would cooperate with the IAEA team but indicated it would not give up uranium enrichment, which it considered a sovereign right.
"We have always been open with regards to our nuclear issues, and the IAEA team coming to Iran can make the necessary inspections," Ali-Akbar Velayati, advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, told the ISNA news agency.
"We will, however, not withdraw from our nuclear rights as we have constantly acted within international regulations and in line with the laws of the non-proliferation treaty," Velayati said.
Meanwhile, Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, called the visit a "test" for the UN agency, according to the website of the official IRIB state broadcaster.
IAEA - leak, Mossad - kill? (Photo: AP)
The IAEA team will be looking for permission to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on a weapons program. They also plan to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits. It's unclear how much assistance Iran will provide, but even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from Iran's frequent simple refusal to talk about them.
The findings from the three-day visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of US-led efforts to rein in Iran's ability to enrich uranium which Washington and allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but claims it only seeks to fuel reactors for energy and medical research.
The International Atomic Energy Agency team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes. Earlier this month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country's main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.
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