Iran's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday raised prospects that Tehran may allow inspectors from the U.N. nuclear agency to visit a military site where the country is suspected of conducting nuclear-related experiments.
A ministry spokesman said the upcoming talks with a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency could lead to a visit to the site — if a "deal" was struck with the Iranian side.
The IAEA inspectors are due for talks in Tehran on Wednesday in hopes of restarting a probe into the country's disputed nuclear program, which the West fears masks ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The agency in particular wants to visit Parchin, southeast of Tehran, where Iran is suspected of testing components needed to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such activity, insisting that Parchin is only a conventional military site.
"Discussion over visiting Parchin could be part of a deal" with the IAEA inspectors, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday. He did not say when a visit to Parchin could take place.
"The prospect of reaching an agreement with the agency is bright, if Iran's nuclear rights are recognized," Mehmanparast added.
Iranian officials often say that as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty — under whose terms U.N. inspectors visit Iranian nuclear sites — Tehran has a right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.
Iran insists it does not seek nuclear arms and repeatedly cites a 2005 edict by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that called atomic weapons a violation of Islamic tenets, saying it only wants to enrich uranium to make fuel for reactors and cancer treatment.
But Mehmanparast said in a veiled warning the IAEA should not escalate the Iranian nuclear case by referring it to the U.N. Security Council, saying such a move would be "illogical and illegal."
Referrals to the Security Council have in the past led to new sanctions against Tehran. Iran has already faced four rounds of U.N. sanctions, as well as stepped-up sanctions and economic measures by the United States and the European Union that have sharply reduced Iran's critical oil exports and blocked access to international banking networks.
A senior IAEA official predicted hard work ahead for the U.N. team in the Tehran talks. The two sides are trying to agree on the rules of how the probe should be conducted, with the Iran resisting an IAEA push that the investigation be open-ended.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the Vienna airport before he and his team left for Iran, Herman Nackaerts said "differences remain" despite meetings that have stretched on for more than a year.
Mehmanparast, the Iranian spokesman, also confirmed reports that Iran started changing some of its 20 percent enriched uranium — which is only a small step away from weapons-grade material — into reactor fuel.
His confirmation followed reports Monday from Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, that Iran was changing some nuclear material that could be used for weapons into another form. However, those reports from Vienna-based diplomats, said the amount was too small to reduce concerns about the Iranian atomic program.
"Conversion of enriched uranium into fuel for the reactor is under way," said Mehmanparast, adding that accounts of the process have been given to the IAEA.
Tehran last year converted close to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of 20-percent uranium into reactor fuel before stopping the process.
The talks with the IAEA are separate from another set of difficult nuclear negotiations — talks between Iran and a powerful six-nation group, which includes the permanent Security Council members and Germany.
Three rounds of those negotiations last year ended in stalemate, with Tehran pushing for a rollback of Western sanctions in exchange for any key concessions on its nuclear program. The next round is set for Feb. 26 in Kazakhstan.
Reinforcing Tehran's hard stance, Mostafa Dolatyar, a member of the Iranian negotiating team to Kazakhstan, said Tuesday that Tehran was "only going to listen" to what the six world powers have to say "in terms of new offers and proposals" in Almaty.
Dolatyar said Iran tried to explain its own viewpoint during talks in Moscow last May and that the other side "knows that they have to come up with a new proposal" on how to resolve the nuclear standoff.
Associated Press writer George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.