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UN inspectors return to Iran amid rising tension

Tehran schedules war games, hints at EU oil-sale ban

LONDON - A team of United Nations inspectors started a visit to Iran yesterday, its second in three weeks, saying its highest priority remained “the possible military dimensions’’ of a program that has led to European oil sanctions and a new threat of expanded countermeasures from Tehran.

The talks between Iranian officials and investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency coincided with heightening international tensions, pressures, and counterpressures over the nuclear program, as Iran claims significant advances in uranium enrichment.

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Iran announced yesterday it would hold another round of air-defense war games to practice protecting nuclear and other sensitive sites. They will be the latest in a series of military maneuvers viewed as a message to the West that Iran is prepared both to defend itself against an armed strike and to retaliate.

In what seemed a further raising of the stakes shortly after the inspectors arrived, Tehran signaled that it might expand a ban on oil exports to Britain and France, announced Sunday, to other European powers it deems hostile in light of broader economic sanctions by the European Union due on July 1.

Iran’s deputy oil minister, Ahmad Qalebani, said oil exports to Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Italy, and Portugal might also be banned, state media reported.

“Undoubtedly if the hostile actions of certain European countries continue, oil exports to these countries will be stopped,’’ said Qalebani, who is also the managing director of the National Iranian Oil Co., according to the Mehr News Agency.

The threat reflected speculation that Iran may be trying to sow division within the 27-nation European Union between those nations that do not buy much of their oil from Iran and those that are more reliant on Tehran. Overall, EU imports represent about 18 percent of Iran’s exports.

The standoff between Iran and the West resembles a poker game with potentially lethal stakes.

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Britain and Germany buy only about 1 percent of their oil from Iran; the corresponding figure for France is 3 percent. The countries named by Qalebani are more dependent. Greece, for instance, gets about one-third of its oil from Iran, while Italy and Spain each get about 13 percent, according to EU figures.

Against that, Iran may be unwilling to compound the economic damage from existing sanctions by forfeiting significant European revenues. But, as in the nuclear debate, the standoff between Iran and the West sometimes resembles a poker game with potentially lethal stakes, as both Tehran and its adversaries maneuver for advantage, with no way of knowing their opponent’s ultimate intentions.

British leaders, for instance, are trying to dissuade Israel from contemplating a military strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran boasts of enhanced enrichment capabilities.

Over the weekend, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said that, while the West should leave all of its options open, a military strike would have “enormous downsides’’ and Britain’s main priority was to “bring Iran back to the table’’ through diplomacy and economic pressures.

The atomic energy inspectors left their headquarters in Vienna late Sunday and the leader of the delegation, Herman Nackaerts, told reporters, “we hope to have some concrete results after this trip.’’ The team planned to meet Iranian nuclear scientists and visit a military base in Parchin.

“The highest priority remains the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, and we want to tackle all outstanding issues,’’ said Nackaerts, the agency’s deputy director general. “This is of course a complex issue which may take a while.’’

The latest talks are scheduled to last two days. After the previous trip ended this month, diplomats briefed on the discussions said Iranian officials had failed to address key concerns raised in an incriminating report issued by the atomic energy agency in November.

Some of the latest Western worries center on a new uranium enrichment plant at Fordo, which is buried deep underground, making it more impervious to scrutiny.

The plant’s construction had been kept a secret until Western intelligence confirmed its existence, forcing Iran to acknowledge the plant in September 2009. The Iranians said at the time that they had always intended to reveal the plant’s existence.

Western officials seemed divided over whether Tehran is shifting toward a more conciliatory position or playing for time.

Last week, in a letter to the European Union, Iran called for new talks “at the earliest possibility’’ with the group of six powers that have negotiated the nuclear issue with Tehran in the past: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany.

Such protestations have been accompanied by warlike statements that Iran is honing its military capabilities. Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, said yesterday that Tehran had set up several projects to build new and advanced warplanes, according to Press TV, a state-financed satellite broadcaster.

On its website, the broadcaster showed a photograph of what it called a long-range land-to-sea missile called Qader, being fired during war games in southern Iran. The drill by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards was in its final phases “to further improve the combat preparedness of Iranian armed forces,’’ Press TV said.

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