Iran so far has refused to allow United Nations inspectors to interview key scientists and military officers to investigate allegations that Tehran maintained a covert nuclear-weapons program, the head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said in an interview Wednesday.
Iran’s stance complicates the International Atomic Energy Agency’s probe into Tehran’s suspected nuclear-military program—a study that is slated to be completed by mid-December, as required by the landmark nuclear agreement forged between world powers and Iran on July 14 in Vienna.
The IAEA and its director-general, Yukiya Amano, have been trying for more than five years to debrief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, an Iranian military officer the U.S., Israel and IAEA suspect oversaw weaponization work in Tehran until at least 2003.
Mr. Amano said Tehran still hasn’t agreed to let Mr. Fakhrizadeh or other Iranian military officers and nuclear scientists help the IAEA complete its investigation. The Japanese diplomat indicated that he believed his agency could complete its probe even without access to top-level Iranian personnel.
“We don’t know yet,” Mr. Amano said about the agency’s interview requests. “If someone who has a different name to Fakhrizadeh can clarify our issues, that is fine with us.”
Tehran repeatedly has denied it ever had a secret nuclear weapons program.
But during an interview in Washington, Mr. Amano said Iran still hasn’t agreed to provide access to Mr. Fakhrizadeh or other top Iranian military officers and nuclear scientists to assist the IAEA in completing its probe. Mr. Amano visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday in a bid to assure skeptical U.S. lawmakers the IAEA is capable of implementing a vast inspections regime of Iran’s nuclear facilities and clarifying the weaponization issue.
Senate Republicans and skeptical Democrats, however, left the 90-minute closed-door meeting frustrated that Mr. Amano refused to share the agency’s classified agreements on access to Iranian military sites, scientists and documents.
“I would say most members left with greater concerns about the inspection regime than we came in with,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) told reporters. “It was not a reassuring meeting.”
The IAEA has declined to make public the specifics of its investigation, citing confidentiality agreements it maintains with Iran and other countries participating in safeguards programs. Mr. Amano said Wednesday that it was his “legal obligation” to protect confidential information, stressing that such arrangements ensure the IAEA’s independence.
“Imagine if a country provides me with confidential information and I do not honor that commitment,” Mr. Amano told reporters after the meeting. “No country will share information with me,” he said, noting the agency also protects U.S. information.
Many senators remained dissatisfied with his answers, saying they doubted the strength of the inspection regime. Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) said he was concerned that Iran would be responsible for collecting its own samples, rather than the international agency.
“It’s like asking an NFL player to mail in their own urine sample instead of the collection being done so you can verify what you’re getting is real,” Mr. Barrasso said. “My impression listening to him was that the promises the president made are not verifiable.”
Some Democrats who have said they would support the deal when Congress votes on it next month said the debate about the confidential documents was a convenient target for critics.
“We don’t need this IAEA program to discover whether or not Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon—they were,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), who endorsed the deal Wednesday. “A lot of this debate over getting access to this confidential agreement is a red herring created by people who were never going to support this agreement in the first place.”
Under the Vienna deal, Iran has pledged to give the IAEA significantly more access and to scale back its production of enriched uranium in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Mr. Amano said these commitments made in Vienna would greatly enhance the IAEA’s ability to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful.
He noted, however, that the agency would require significantly more funding from the U.S. and other governments to fulfill its mandate. He said he informed Congress that the IAEA’s budget would likely grow by around eight million euros annually.
This is the most robust safeguard “agreement in the world, currently available,” Amano said. “If we don’t have this agreement, the level of activities of Iran will stay the same or expand.”
The IAEA’s chief said he provided the Obama administration with some of the details of the agreements as part of “technical exchanges” in Vienna.
U.S. lawmakers are specifically concerned that the IAEA won’t get access to a sprawling military base south of Tehran, called Parchin, where the testing of explosive devices allegedly occurred in the early 2000s.
The agency repeatedly has been denied access to Parchin, and Mr. Amano has charged Tehran in the past with trying to sanitize the site.
On Wednesday, the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, published satellite photos taken after the Vienna agreement was signed that appeared to show bulldozers moving more land at Parchin.
“These activities could be related to refurbishment or cleanup prior to any IAEA inspection or the taking of environmental samples,” the Institute for Science and International Security said in a report accompanying the pictures.
Mr. Amano said Wednesday he couldn’t discuss the details of any future inspections of Parchin.
But the Obama administration’s lead nuclear negotiator with Iran, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday the IAEA could do its work at the base even if its inspectors weren’t physically at the site. She said soil sampling overseen by Iran could provide the necessary assurances about the activities at Parchin.
“You know, you don’t have to be physically present on every site in this technological world to get done what is necessary,” Ms. Sherman said.
Mr. Fakhrizadeh is under U.N., U.S. and EU sanctions for his alleged role in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Under the terms of the Vienna agreement, the penalties on him would be lifted by 2024.