VIENNA — The U.S. may have to soften demands that any nuclear deal with Iran give U.N. experts a free hand to investigate possible past nuclear arms works by Tehran, after Iran's supreme leader stridently ruled out cooperation Wednesday.
The move came just weeks ahead of a June deadline for a nuclear deal. The West insists that a ruling by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency on the allegations about past activities, based on full Iranian cooperation with an IAEA probe, is essential to be able to understand Tehran's present nuclear activities. The U.S. and its allies have conditioned full lifting of sanctions on Iran's willingness to help with the investigation.
Attempts to investigate the allegations by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency have been essentially stalemated for almost a decade. Still, Washington and its allies had hoped that as the nuclear deal emerges with its promise of sanctions relief for Iran, it would soften Tehran's resistance.
Instead, Iran appeared to be digging in, as nuclear experts from Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain France and Germany resumed negotiations in Vienna on a deal.
Tehran has steadfastly refused IAEA requests for visits to suspicious sites and interviews with individuals allegedly involved in secret weapons in agency investigative efforts predating the latest Iran-six nation nuclear negotiations. And on Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to link his veto on such access to the talks themselves.
"No inspection of any military site and interview with nuclear scientists will be allowed" Khamenei told military commanders. "The enemies should know that the Iranian nation and officials will by no means give in to excessive demands and bullying."
Iran tentatively agreed last month to open its atomic activities to greater scrutiny as part of the deal, which would require it to commit to curbing nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons. While Iran insists it has no interest in such arms, it is negotiating in exchange for an end to international sanctions.
Specifically, Iran agreed to implement what is known as the IAEA's "Additional Protocol" when it agreed last month to the outlines of the deal now being worked on.
That is expected to give the agency more intrusive powers to monitor whether Iran is hewing to its commitments to a long-term reduction of its present nuclear activities. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has said "restricted inspections ... under strict control and specific circumstances" may be possible.
But preconditions sought by Iran could be a problem. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Wednesday that Tehran wants a 24-day delay before allowing IAEA inspectors access to sites where the IAEA may suspect a violation of the nuclear deal.
"A lot of things can disappear" in 24 days, Fabius cautioned.
And IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has told The Associated Press that he didn't know whether the protocol also would make his experts' attempts to probe the previous alleged weapons work any easier.
Khamenei strongly indicated that would not be the case.
"I will not allow foreigners to interview — which is tantamount to interrogation — the prominent beloved scientists and sons of this nation," he said in remarks broadcast on state TV.
Amano has said that if his investigation remains stalled he may make an assessment on the issue based on the evidence he now has available. Diplomats say that consists of intelligence from the United States, Israel and other nations, satellite photos and information compiled by agency experts. Iran dismisses the material as fabricated by its enemies.
While such a finding might satisfy the Obama administration, it is likely to be criticized by U.S. Senate opponents of the Iran talks and Israel as further evidence that Washington has softened its demands on Tehran for the sake of achieving a deal.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.