UN watchdog chief heads to Iran as nuclear talks extended
VIENNA - Intense negotiations between Iran and major world powers ramped up Wednesday with the chief of the UN atomic watchdog heading to Tehran for talks on a nuclear bomb probe vital for a deal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart held fresh negotiations in Vienna seeking to narrow differences before the new deadline of July 7 announced on Tuesday.
The foreign ministers of France and China, Laurent Fabius and Wang Yi, were meanwhile expected back in Vienna Thursday along with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Iran and the P5+1 group -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- are trying to nail down a historic agreement ending a 13-year standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Under a framework deal agreed in April, Iran will massively scale down its nuclear programme in order to make any push to make nuclear weapons all but impossible.
In return, painful sanctions imposed on Iran because of fears it might be seeking the bomb -- something it denies -- would be progressively lifted.
But one of the sticking points has proved to be access to sensitive Iranian military sites.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants to probe allegations that before 2003 and perhaps since, Iran's nuclear programme had "possible military dimensions" -- in other words, that it conducted nuclear weapons research.
Iranian media said IAEA chief Yukiya Amano would visit Tehran for talks on Thursday with President Hassan Rouhani at Iran's invitation.
"The goal of Yukiya Amano's trip is to talk about past activities and receive Iran's suggestions on how to resolve the differences," the Iranian news agency IRNA said.
Another Iranian agency, ISNA, said the country's leaders would offer "suggested solutions" to the impasse.
An accord would be a rare diplomatic success in the Middle East potentially putting Iran on the road to better international relations -- a prospect that alarms rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia.
But finalising the framework agreement from Lausanne, Switzerland has proved difficult and negotiators were forced to abandon Tuesday's deadline and give themselves until July 7 after several days of talks in the Austrian capital.
The IAEA said Amano's visit was to "accelerate the resolution of all outstanding issues related to Iran's nuclear programme, including clarification of possible military dimensions".
Other tough issues include the pace and timing of sanctions relief, the mechanism for their "snapback" and Iran's future development of faster nuclear equipment.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday despite the extension he believed an accord was "within reach."
"There remain questions, mostly regarding procedural issues rather than technical," Lavrov told Russian television after talks with Kerry.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif refused Wednesday to be drawn at the start of his meeting with the American diplomat on whether Amano's visit to Tehran meant there was a breakthrough on verification.
"Let him decide," Zarif said.
The IAEA already keeps close tabs on Iran, with its inspectors and monitoring equipment making sure that all nuclear material is accounted for and that Iran's facilities are being used for exclusively peaceful purposes.
Under any accord, it will have a greater inspections rights and it will have to verify that Iran complies with the deal before any sanctions are lifted.
Iran says its programme is peaceful and has always been so. An IAEA probe has been practically stalled since mid-2014.
The P5+1 also want the IAEA in the future to be able to go anywhere it likes in order to probe allegations of suspicious activity.
One way around might be strictly controlled "managed access" visits that reassure Iran that IAEA staff are not spying on its military facilities under the guise of nuclear inspections.