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Iran to grant more access to inspectors

CAIRO, Egypt — CAIRO, Egypt -- Iran's decision to grant international inspectors greater access to a major nuclear facility was greeted by skepticism as well as cautious hope yesterday among nonproliferation experts.

Under the terms of an agreement announced yesterday, the United Nations' international atomic watchdog will be granted access again to the heavy-water reactor at Arak by the end of the month. International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, inspectors were barred this year from the remote facility in the mountains of western Iran after enjoying previous access.

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Tehran, the Iranian capital, is at loggerheads with the U.S. and the U.N. over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian officials insist that their country is developing nuclear technology to meet its growing domestic energy needs and to achieve other peaceful purposes. But governments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East fear that Iran is covertly building infrastructure for the production of atomic weapons and have punished Iran with sanctions.

Heavy-water reactors like the one in Arak produce isotopes used in medicine and for other peaceful purposes. But they also produce plutonium, which can be used for the core of nuclear warheads.

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The atomic agency also announced yesterday that Iran had agreed on unspecified inspection "safeguards" for the nuclear fuel enrichment plant near the Iranian city of Natanz and a new roster of inspectors to enter the country.

The accord doesn't address Tehran's continued enrichment of uranium at Natanz, the main issue of contention between Iran and the international community and the reason the U.N. Security Council has imposed economic sanctions on the regime. But a diplomat close to the inspection agency said that the agreement might show a new willingness by the Iranians to be more transparent.

"It is not insignificant as long as the promises are kept," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the news media.

"It does go to the heart of the agency's concerns with regard to the Iran file," he said. "The caveat, of course, is that what is promised is delivered."

Other officials complained that the latest deal not only doesn't go far enough to allay international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program, but also provides Iran with a convenient bargaining chip in trying to ward off further sanctions.

"The worry was that this would be a way for Iran to delay the Security Council from meeting," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It holds out the hope that Iran will resolve the issue through the IAEA, to delay further action."

The agreement follows a meeting last month between IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and a rival to conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since the Iranian president's election in 2005, observers say, Iran has taken a much tougher line on the nuclear issue.

The latest deal could be a sign that the moderates are pushing back against hard-liners within Iran's ruling elite, said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.



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