Iran moves to cooperate in U.N. nuclear bomb probe

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Iran Nuclear Negotiations - last updated 11/24/2014
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Iran moves to cooperate in U.N. nuclear bomb probe
Delegations of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammondm, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif,German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sit around the negotiations table during their meeting in Vienna on November 24, 2014. Iran and world powers looked likely Monday to miss a midnight deadline to agree a long-awaited nuclear deal, with a Western diplomat saying they would agree an extension and meet again next month. AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Delegations of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammondm, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ,German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, EuropeanUnion High Representative Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sit around the negotiations table during their meeting in Vienna on November 24, 2014. World powers and Iran are likely to extend their deadline of midnight Monday to agree a nuclear deal and will meet again in December, a Western official said. AFP PHOTO/ POOL/ JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pose for a photograph prior to a meeting of the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran, in Vienna, Austria, Monday, November 24, 2014. World powers and Iran are likely to extend their deadline of midnight Monday to agree a nuclear deal and will meet again in December, a Western official said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONALD ZAK (Photo credit should read RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attend a meeting in Vienna on November 24, 2014. At stake in the Austrian capital Vienna is a historic deal in which Iran would curb its nuclear activities in exchange for broad relief from years of heavy international economic sanctions. It could end a 12-year standoff with the West that has even raised the threat of Israeli military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. AFP PHOTO /POOL /JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. Kerry defended extending a deadline for a deal with Iran, saying 'real and substantial progress' was made during talks in Vienna and calling on US lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Tehran. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
VIENNA, AUSTRIA - NOVEMBER 24: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lawrow, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Catherine Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi pose for a group photo at the Palais Coburg on November 23, 2014 in Vienna, Austria. Negotiators from the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia are meeting with Iran to finalize an interim deal over Iran's nuclear program. (Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. Kerry defended extending a deadline for a deal with Iran, saying 'real and substantial progress' was made during talks in Vienna and calling on US lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Tehran. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. Kerry defended extending a deadline for a deal with Iran, saying 'real and substantial progress' was made during talks in Vienna and calling on US lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Tehran. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. Kerry defended extending a deadline for a deal with Iran, saying 'real and substantial progress' was made during talks in Vienna and calling on US lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Tehran. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
VIENNA, AUSTRIA - NOVEMBER 24: US Secretary of state John Kerry holds a press conference after the talks between the E3+3 (France, Germany, UK, China, Russia, US) and Iran on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Vienna, Austria on November 24, 2014. (Photo by Hasan Tosun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L)and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton deliver a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L)and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton leave after delivering a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L)and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton deliver a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton (not pictured) deliver a statement in Vienna on the status of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program before he leaves Vienna on November 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr. Iran and six world powers have agreed on how to implement a nuclear deal struck in November, with its terms starting from Jan. 20, officials announced Sunday. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour, File)
In this photo released by an official website of the Iranian Supreme Leader's Office, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes a speech to military members in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Khamenei urged officials Saturday not to pin hopes for economic recovery on the sanctions relief from a landmark deal reached with world powers on Tehran's nuclear program. Khamenei also called on critics of the interim nuclear deal achieved on Nov. 24 in Geneva to be fair and give time to President Hassan Rouhani to pursue his policy of engagement with the outside world. (AP Photo/Iranian Supreme Leader's Office)
A picture obtained from Iran's ISNA news agency shows IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards, Tero Varjoranta (R), and Iran's new ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Reza Najafi (L) shaking hands after reaching an agreement, in Tehran on February 9, 2014. Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog agreed on new 'practical' steps to increase transparency over Tehran's controversial nuclear work, although a suspect military site remained off-limits. AFP PHOTO/ISNA/AMIR POURMAND (Photo credit should read AMIR POURMAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif answers a question during a joint press conference with his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt (unseen) in Tehran on February 4, 2014. Bildt is on an official visit to Iran to try to bolster the country's temporary nuclear deal. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano attend a panel discussion during the 50th Munich Security Conference on February 2, 2014 in Munich, southern Germany. The annual meeting of the global 'strategic community' was set to deal with thorny international issues, from the Syrian war and Ukraine's turmoil to Iran's nuclear programme and US online surveillance. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
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(Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency said on Sunday that Iran had agreed to start addressing suspicions that it may have worked on designing an atomic weapon, a potential breakthrough in a long-stalled investigation into Tehran's atomic activities.

The development - although limited for now - marked a step forward in an international push to settle a decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran says this is peaceful, while the West fears that Iran wants to develop atomic arms.

The deal could also send a positive signal to separate, high-stakes negotiations between Iran and six world powers which are due to start on February 18 in Vienna, aimed at reaching a broader diplomatic settlement with the Islamic state.

Efforts to end years of hostile rhetoric and confrontation that could otherwise trigger a new war in the Middle East gained momentum with last year's election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as new Iranian president on a platform to ease Iran's international isolation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had agreed during talks in Tehran to take seven new practical measures within three months under a November transparency deal with the IAEA meant to help allay concern about the nuclear program.

For the first time, one of them specifically dealt with an issue that is part of the U.N. nuclear agency's inquiry into what it calls the possible military dimensions to Iran's atomic activities. Iran has repeatedly denied any such ambitions.

It said Iran would provide "information and explanations for the agency to assess Iran's stated need or application for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators".

Although such fast-functioning detonators have some non-nuclear uses, they can also help set off an atomic device.

"It is an important issue and it is good that the agency can now tackle it," former chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts said. But he made clear that much work remained in order to fully clarify the IAEA's concerns: "It is a first step in a long process."

Faced with deadlock last year in its attempts to get Iran to cooperate with its investigation, the IAEA changed tactics and now seeks to gradually build mutual trust by starting with some of the less sensitive issues, diplomats say.

Suggesting that more difficult matters would have to wait a while longer, there was no mention in the IAEA's statement of its long-sought access to the Parchin military site, where it suspects explosives tests relevant for nuclear bombs may have been conducted a decade ago. Iran denies this.

DETONATOR DEVELOPMENT

The IAEA has been investigating accusations for years that Iran may have coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives and revamp a missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead. Iran says such claims are baseless and forged.

Other steps to be taken by Iran by May 15 include inspector access to the Saghand uranium mine and the Ardakan uranium ore milling plant as well as updated design information about a planned reactor the West fears could yield weapons material.

Iran will also give information on the extraction of uranium from phosphates. Uranium can fuel nuclear power plants but also provide the fissile core of a bomb if refined more.

The IAEA, tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, says it needs such access and information to gain a more complete picture about Iran's nuclear program.

It wants "to have a complete understanding of Iran's uranium holdings", said Olli Heinonen, another former chief IAEA inspector, now at Harvard University's Belfer Center.

The Iran-IAEA talks are separate from, though still closely linked to, the wider diplomacy between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.

Shortly after Tehran and the IAEA signed their cooperation accord on November 11, Iran and the six powers clinched an interim deal to curb its nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions easing, designed to buy time for the talks on a long-term deal.

The IAEA's investigation is focused on the question of whether Iran sought atomic bomb technology in the past and, if it did, to determine whether such work has since stopped.

A joint Iran-IAEA statement issued after the February 8-9 discussions said the two sides held "constructive technical meetings" and that Iran had implemented six previous, initial steps including access to two nuclear-related sites.

The IAEA had hoped to persuade Iran in the talks finally to start addressing its suspicions. While denying them, Iran has said it will work with the IAEA to clear up any "ambiguities".

The issue of detonator development was mentioned in a report that the IAEA prepared in 2011 containing a trove of intelligence information about alleged activities by Iran that could be used in developing atomic arms.

"Given their possible application in a nuclear explosive device, and the fact that there are limited civilian and conventional military applications for such technology, Iran's development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern," the IAEA said in the 2011 document.
It said Iran had told the U.N. agency in 2008 that it had developed such detonators for civil and conventional military applications. "However, Iran has not explained to the agency its own need or application for such detonators," it said.

(Editing by Stephen Powell)

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