VIENNA, Austria – Iran abruptly froze further U.N. inspections of its nuclear program for six weeks on Friday, throwing into turmoil international attempts to verify Tehran’s claims that it is developing atomic power and not weapons.
The move was dismissed as unimportant by Iranian representatives. But diplomats familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency described it as a potentially insurmountable obstacle to the agency’s efforts to deliver a judgment by June on the nature Tehran’s past and present nuclear ambitions.
One diplomat described the freeze until the end of April as counterproductive to Iran’s stated aim of dispelling suspicions about more than two decades of secret nuclear activities that included uranium enrichment and other activities that can be used to make weapons.
“If they really have nothing to hide, it is further against their interests” to raise questions about why they are placing their nuclear activities off limits to outside inspections, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The diplomat said that the move may indicate fear that inspectors will find new incriminating evidence. It could also be an attempt to show “political muscle” at the ongoing meeting of the IAEA board of governors, which is debating how harshly to censure Iran for its spotty record of revealing past nuclear secrets, the diplomat added.
The United States insists Iran tried to make nuclear weapons, something Tehran denies. A U.S.official said the freeze on inspections “is going to hurt Iran’s chances” of proving the Americans wrong, adding, “if they take a step like this, they certainly look guilty.”
He said the move had alarmed IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who had planned to put the results of his inspectors’ new findings into a report by the end of May for the next meeting of the 35-nation board in June.
Iran “is certainly being pressured by ElBaradei and members of the board to take their measure back,” the official told the AP.
An IAEA spokeswoman declined to comment. But the diplomat said the freeze on inspections would likely block the agency’s ongoing investigation of the origins of weapons-grade uranium traces that Iran claims was inadvertently imported on equipment it bought for low-grade enrichment as a fuel for power generation.
It would also likely stymie the probe into the scope of advanced nuclear enrichment equipment that Iran admitted only recently — and only after the equipment was found by inspectors, said the diplomat.
The inspectors were to have been in Iran next week as part of the U.N. agency’s examination of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, Pirooz Hosseini, told The Associated Press that the inspections would be postponed because they conflicted with next week’s celebration of the Iranian New Year.
Asked why the celebrations — which end well before the end of April — were not taken into account when the invitations were first issued, Hosseini said officials made “a simple mistake.”
Iran, which insists its nuclear intentions are peaceful, has threatened repeatedly over the past few days to reduce cooperation with the U.N. agency if its 35-nation board of governors comes down hard on the Islamic republic.
On Thursday, the nonaligned bloc at the board of governors watered down a draft resolution backed by the United States, Canada, Australia and European countries. The Western group then rejected the draft as being too gentle on Iran.
The deadlock left Australian, Canadian and Irish diplomats shuttling between U.S. and nonaligned representatives trying to bridge the differences. A Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity that U.S. patience was wearing thin.
Another diplomat said the United States and the Europeans considered the nonaligned modifications unacceptable because they did not sufficiently criticize Iran’s record on nuclear openness.
Recent discoveries by IAEA inspectors of undeclared items and programs have cast doubt on Tehran’s assertions it has no more nuclear secrets.
An IAEA report last month accused Tehran of hiding evidence of nuclear experiments and noted the discovery of traces of radioactive polonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.
The report also expressed concern about the discovery of a previously undisclosed advanced P-2 centrifuge system for enriching uranium.
Iran asserts its now-suspended enrichment plans are geared only toward generating power.
But on Wednesday, Iran announced plans to resume enrichment, eliciting a negative response from ElBaradei, who said it would hurt Tehran’s chances of proving it has no interest in nuclear weapons.