AMMAN, Jordan - Iran signaled a willingness Tuesday to allow potentially intrusive international inspections of secret military facilities, raising expectations that it was searching for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over its nuclear program.
With talks between Iran and global powers set to begin Wednesday in Baghdad, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said he had reached something of a breakthrough with Iranian officials on the agency’s longstanding request for access to the facilities. Amano’s assertion suggested that Iran was seeking to set a positive tone for the nuclear talks and perhaps ease pressure from strict Western-led sanctions that are about to become even more severe.
Amano did not specify a timetable or other details.
Iran’s critics were quick to suggest that the conciliatory-sounding signal from Iran could amount to little more than a negotiating tactic as the Iranians prepare for talks on the more complex issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment with the six powers - the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
But Amano told reporters at the atomic agency’s headquarters in Vienna that there had been an “important development’’ in the agency’s effort to reach a “structured agreement’’ on how its inspectors would conduct an investigation into whether the Iranians have sought ways in the past to weaponize enriched nuclear fuel, a longstanding suspicion by the United States, Israel and the European Union.
“The decision was made to conclude and sign the agreement,’’ said Amano, who visited Tehran on Sunday and Monday - his first trip there since his appointment in 2009.
He has expressed strong suspicions about what he has called Iran’s lack of cooperation in its dealings with the agency.
Amano’s upbeat assessment, coming on top of recent optimistic signals from Western diplomats, suggested that Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was signaling Iran’s sincerity in talks with the six global powers - the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China - on a more wide-ranging deal to bring Iran back into compliance with Security Council resolutions and ensure that Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapon.
The most immediate goal of the Baghdad talks for the six appears to be to get an agreement by Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity - near the level required for a nuclear weapon - and to agree to discuss exporting its stockpile of uranium enriched to that level. And they want to be sure Iran is prepared to move quickly to take concrete steps to calm global and regional concerns.
The White House welcomed Amano’s announcement with caution.
“It’s an agreement in principle that represents a step in the right direction,’’ said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “But as we’ve said in the past about the totality of Iran’s obligations and their fulfillment of them, we will make judgments about Iran’s behavior based on actions, not just promises or agreements.’’
Even Amano said the talks had not produced an agreement on how the IAEA could conduct the inspections it demands. “There remain some differences,’’ Amano said, but he noted that Jalili had told him that those differences “will not be the obstacle to reaching agreement.’’
In past meetings with the six, Jalili has argued that Iran’s compliance with the IAEA meant that sanctions should be lifted. That may be an argument that he renews Wednesday.
Iran’s state-run media noted that no deal had been made so far with Amano and focused instead on what the government has portrayed as steady Iranian advances in nuclear and rocket technology. Iran state television said scientists had successfully loaded uranium fuel into a medical isotope reactor Tuesday.