WASHINGTON - The United Nations top nuclear official will travel Sunday to Tehran for talks with senior Iranian negotiators, raising the possibility of advancing inspections of Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced the surprise visit of Director General Yukiya Amano to Tehran saying he would discuss issues of mutual interest with high Iranian officials.
Western officials have said the IAEA and Iran have been making progress that could allow the nuclear watchdog to resume its investigation into allegations Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has barred U.N. inspectors from the Parchin military site near Tehran, where officials say explosives tests tied to a possible weapons program may have taken place.
Senior Iranian analyst Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy called Amano’s visit an encouraging development and said it may lead to access to the Parchin site.
"The IAEA has been very interested in getting into that site because they can, in fact, determine whether or not such tests were done there, although Iran appears to have gone to extraordinary lengths to clean up the sight," said Clawson.
The meetings are scheduled to take place just days before the United States and other Western powers are to meet with Iran in Baghdad as part of an effort to curb its nuclear program and avoid an armed conflict in the Middle East.
Analysts say advances in the Tehran talks could set the stage for progress in Baghdad.
"If Iran is cooperating more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency that will be a considerable confidence building measure in and of itself. Not enough for a relaxation of sanctions, but a considerable confidence building measure none the less," said Clawson.
The announcement came after the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, said plans are in place for a U.S. military strike against Iran if diplomacy fails.
Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed the statement, but said the focus now is on diplomatic and economic efforts.
"The ambassador was absolutely correct in saying that no options are off the table. But those options are not something that is being contemplated at this point in terms of the military option," said Little.
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military strikes to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.