U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said he expected an inspection deal "quite soon."
Traffic snaked through Kahramana Square during a sandstorm in Baghdad. The storm shut down Baghdad’s airport, complicating travel for envoys trying to reach the Iraqi capital for nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers scheduled to begin Wednesday.
PARIS - On the eve of international talks in Baghdad over Iran's disputed nuclear program, the leader of the U.N. nuclear monitoring arm announced what appeared to be a significant concession from Tehran, saying that he expected a deal "quite soon" on an investigation into potential military applications of the program.
The comments by Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), came after his first visit to Iran since his appointment in 2009. Iran's invitation to Amano, announced unexpectedly on Friday, and the apparent shift by Tehran he announced on Tuesday offered significant signals of Iranian flexibility.
The flurry of diplomacy reinforced the shift of focus to talks from the possibility of military action by Israel, but mixed messages from Iran -- including sharp statements from political figures and a planned Wednesday satellite launch using a large missile -- kept uncertainty high.
The IAEA and world powers are involved in separate talks with Iran. The nuclear agency is seeking access to Iran's Parchin military site, which the nuclear agency suspects has been used for tests for potential triggering mechanisms for nuclear weapons, while the Baghdad talks are to focus on limiting Iran's enrichment of uranium. For its part, Tehran is seeking reciprocal concessions, like an easing of broad economic sanctions -- including an embargo on oil deals starting July 1 and broad banking restrictions -- at the Baghdad talks.
Amano's report of progress elicited a skeptical response from Israel and the United States. Israel considers Iran's nuclear program to be a threat to its existence and has threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear installations.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran seemed to be trying to "create the impression of progress" to "remove some of the pressure" before the Baghdad talks and to "put off the intensification of sanctions."
Robert Wood, the chief U.S. delegate to the nuclear agency, said that while Amano's efforts were appreciated, the Obama administration remained "concerned by the urgent obligation for Iran to take concrete steps to cooperate fully with the verification efforts of the IAEA.
Amano spoke of an Iranian willingness to allow new access on his return to the nuclear agency's headquarters in Vienna on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters, he characterized the progress as an "important development" on the agency's push to reach what it calls a "structured agreement" to determine how its inspectors would conduct an investigation into possible military applications of the Iranian program.
"The decision was made to conclude and sign the agreement," Amano said, offering only the vague timetable of "quite soon."
"There remain some differences," Amano said, referring to his discussions with Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator. But Jalili told him that existing differences "will not be the obstacle to reaching agreement," Amano said.
Jalili is scheduled to fly to Baghdad for the talks on Wednesday with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. There, negotiators will try to agree on the framework of the beginning of a compromise in which Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity -- a level considered a short technical step away from weapons grade. In exchange, world powers would allow the Islamic republic to produce its own fuel at a much lower rate of purity not usable for nuclear weapons.
In Iran, officials were silent on Amano's comments on a deal soon. But Iran's state broadcaster, traditionally used to disseminate official reactions, stressed that no "deal" had been made.