By BRADLEY KLAPPER and MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's preferred path to end the Iranian nuclear standoff faces a stern test this week when world powers sit down with Iran in another bid to press it to meet international demands to prove it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. Failure will strengthen calls for military action.
Wednesday's talks in Baghdad come at a critical juncture in the almost decade-long effort to persuade Iran's government to halt its enrichment of uranium and allow unfettered access to international inspectors, with Israel continuing to speak of a possible attack. Republican rival Mitt Romney also has derided Obama's engagement efforts, putting pressure on the president to deliver progress soon.
The chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, said Tuesday that the agency had reached a deal with Iran that would allow it to resume a long-stalled search for evidence that Iran worked secretly to build nuclear arms.
After talks Monday in Tehran between Amano and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, "the decision was made ... to reach agreement" on the mechanics of giving the International Atomic Energy Agency access to sites, scientists and documents it seeks to restart its probe, Amano told reporters in Vienna Tuesday.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country sees Iran as a threat to its very existence, reminded world powers they need to be tough.
"Iran wants to destroy Israel, and it is developing nuclear weapons to fulfill that goal," he said. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The Obama administration is being vague about its immediate goals. Despite warning of an increasingly narrow time frame for a negotiated agreement, officials say the discussions in Iraq's capital will gauge Tehran's seriousness and explore elements of a possible agreement. The strategy aims to avoid the all-or-nothing stakes that have derailed previous talks. Even within the administration, attitudes range from skeptical to extremely cautious.
In a statement Tuesday, Robert A. Wood, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, said Washington appreciated Amano's efforts but remained "concerned by the urgent obligation for Iran to take concrete steps to cooperate fully with the verification efforts of the IAEA, based on IAEA verification practices."
"We urge Iran to take this opportunity to resolve all outstanding concerns about the nature of its nuclear program," Wood said. "Full and transparent cooperation with the IAEA is the first logical step."
Last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "The pressure will be on the Iranians to demonstrate continued good faith." He called on Tehran to address its nuclear program "in concrete ways" with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and said sanctions and pressure on Iran would continue as well, led by the United States.
Congress is about to negotiate bipartisan legislation to green-light stronger sanctions. The Senate on Monday approved tough new penalties on the Tehran regime, while the House passed its version of the measure in December.
Asked about the objective for Baghdad, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We want to see a really concrete, serious discussion about steps that will demonstrate that we are moving in the right direction."
Obama opposes a near-term military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities and has pressed Israel to give diplomacy and sanctions time to work. He insists that military options are available should talks fail, a position that clashes with Netanyahu and increasingly hawkish Republicans who want him to act even tougher.
Netanyahu in particular has charged the process with being too accommodating to Tehran. "I see no evidence whatsoever that Iran is serious about ending its nuclear program," he said last week.