Monday, May 21, 2018

U.N. nuclear inspection gets under way in Iran

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's foreign minister expressed optimism Sunday that a visit by U.N. inspectors to Iran's nuclear facilities would produce an understanding, despite world concerns that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

The three-day inspection tour by the International Atomic Energy Agency team comes during spiking tension. The West is imposing new sanctions to try to force Iran to slow or halt its nuclear program, and Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil passage, in retaliation.

Visiting Ethiopia, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to be trying to defuse the crisis. "We are very optimistic about the mission and the outcome" of the IAEA mission, Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency.

The findings from the visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran's ability to enrich uranium — which Washington and allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but claims it seeks to fuel reactors only for energy and medical research.

The team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes. This month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country's main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.

The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts — Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa — suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.

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