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Iran shows optimism on inspections

TEHRAN - Iran’s foreign minister expressed optimism yesterday that a visit by UN inspectors to Iran’s nuclear facilities would produce an understanding, despite world concerns that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

The three-day inspection tour by the International Atomic Energy Agency team comes amid rising tension. The West is imposing new sanctions to try to force Iran to slow or halt its nuclear program, and Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil passage, in retaliation.

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Visiting Ethiopia, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to be trying to defuse the crisis. “We are very optimistic about the mission and the outcome’’ of the IAEA mission, Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency.

“We’ve always tried to put transparency as a principle in our cooperation with IAEA,’’ Salehi said. “During this visit, the delegation has questions and the necessary answers will be given.’’

The findings from the visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of US-led efforts to rein in Iran’s ability to enrich uranium - which Washington and its allies fear could eventually produce arms-grade material. Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but says it seeks to fuel reactors only for energy and medical research.

The team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the city of Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran, which is carved in 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 advanced equipment.

The nuclear agency’s inspection trip was set to coincide with a vote in Iran’s Parliament on a bill that would require the government to immediately cut the flow of crude oil to Europe in retaliation for sanctions. Lawmakers postponed the vote yesterday to further study the bill, and no date for a vote has been set.

The draft bill is Iran’s response to an EU decision last week to impose an embargo on Iranian oil. The measure would take full effect in July.

The UN delegation includes two top arms experts - Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa - suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.

It is 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.

In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival, Herman Nackaerts, IAEA’s deputy director general - who is in charge of the agency’s Iran file - said he wants Tehran to “engage us on all concerns.’’

“So we’re looking forward to the start of a dialogue,’’ Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport. “A dialogue that is overdue since very long.’’

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