Iran recently invited a group of nations to tour the Islamic Republic's nuclear-related sites - on January 15 and 16. This gesture has been dismissed by many in the West, who say Iran would never show anything that may be part of a possible nuclear weapons program. Still, Iran clearly believes that it will reap benefits from conducting this tour.
Iran has been under constant criticism for its nuclear program. While Tehran insists its nuclear activities are focused on electric power, many nations accuse it of actually seeking nuclear weapons. Those suspicions have been heightened by the discovery of secret nuclear facilities, such as the underground uranium processing operation unmasked near the city of Qom in September, 2009.
Several weeks ago, Iran announced it had invited a number of nations to tour the uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, and the heavy water facility near Arak. Invited for the tour - on January 15 and 16 - were Hungary, as a representative of the European Union, Russia and China, two of the nations in the so-called "P5+1 Group," - the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The nations of the Non-Aligned Movement were invited as well. And the French news agency AFP reports that Iran also says it has invited Venezuela and Syria.
Quickly, EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton announced that Hungary would not participate. Iran's FARS news agency says Russian and Chinese observers are expected to take part. And, FARS says Egypt and Cuba will represent the Non-Aligned Movement.
At the Middle East Institute in Washington, Analyst Alex Vatanka says the tour is obviously meant to influence upcoming multinational talks on Iran's nuclear program. "They're saying that the purpose for organizing this trip, for these various delegations from these various countries, is to establish more diplomatic goodwill on behalf of Iran, before the next set of negotiations with the "P5+1" that are supposed to take place sometime in the month of January."
The P5+1 group's next round of talks with Iran is scheduled to take place in Istanbul on January 21 and 22.
Nuclear Proliferation analyst Joseph Cirincione, the President of a foundation called the Ploughshares Fund, says he thinks Iran has two major purposes for the inspection tour. "One is to feign [create the appearance of] some flexibility here, to show that they are willing to be "open." And, two, to bring senior officials there to take a look at these facilities, which are quite substantial, to convince them that Iran is determined to keep those facilities, and has no intention of giving them up," he said.
Yet another expert on nuclear issues, James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he sees the tour as an effort to distract attention from Iran's international obligations. "I think what Iran was trying to do was [to] demonstrate that its nuclear program WAS transparent by inviting a bunch of ambassadors to come around. But of course, if you want to demonstrate that your nuclear program is transparent, then you give the International Atomic Energy Agency complete and proactive cooperation. So, I think this has been a backfired propaganda stunt," he said.
Iran now says that the countries taking the nuclear facility tour are welcome to bring along their nuclear technicians as well as diplomatic observers. But, many critics of the tour say Iran would never show outsiders anything that might be connected to a possible nuclear weapons project. And, because of that, those critics say, the tour has no credibility.
Glaringly excluded from the tour invitation were P5+1 members Britain and the United States - two countries that have pushed hard for nuclear related sanctions against Iran. James Acton at Carnegie says Tehran blundered by keeping Washington and London out. "I think that Iran would have been in a stronger propaganda position had it invited all of the P5+1 [nations]. And then, it could have proudly announced that the United States and the United Kingdom were turning down this important 'transparency tour.' Failing to invite those states clearly loses [for] Iran the PR tour that it clearly might have had," he said.
Joseph Cirincione says Iran focused only on Russia and China in the P5+1 group because those two countries voted in the UN last June to impose a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran. He says Tehran may think that this tour could make both Moscow and Beijing less likely to support any further sanctions.
Cirincione went to the city of Esfahan in 2005 to tour a nuclear facility there at Iran's invitation. He says he felt much like a prop in a stage play. "It was more a "dog and pony show" [a carefully constructed performance designed to convey only certain points] - a show and tell, where we were paraded in, walked around, and then paraded out. And, all the time, there were Iranian TV cameras there, filming the visit - showing that Iran is open by allowing these foreign experts [such as Cirincione] to come and visit. Of course, this [tour] wasn't anything like the kinds of inspections that you really need to determine the nature of the Iranian [nuclear] program," he said.
Few in the West say they believe the tour will affect perceptions held by those countries involved in the P5+1 talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others have said there is no substitute for full Iranian transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency.