VIENNA -- UN inspectors will return next week to a reactor being built in central Iran and declared off-limits since April, officials said yesterday -- a concession by Tehran seen as a key step in clearing up questions about its suspect nuclear program.
The team will visit the heavy-water reactor under construction outside the central industrial city of Arak on Monday or Tuesday, International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen said after meeting with a senior Iranian envoy.
Arak will produce plutonium once it is completed sometime in the next decade, and the UN Security Council has demanded that Iran stop construction. Plutonium, like uranium, is a possible pathway to nuclear arms.
IAEA experts say access to the 40-megawatt research reactor is critical to their review of Tehran's overall nuclear activities. The Islamic republic has blocked access to the site since early April, and the agency's inspectors have not visited since Jan. 29.
Iran has vowed to continue its disputed program, insisting it is peaceful and geared solely toward producing electricity. The United States and key Western allies accuse it of covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon.
It remained unclear whether Tehran's agreement to reopen Arak to inspections was an attempt to ease the threat of tougher Security Council sanctions.
Iranian officials and Heinonen agreed earlier this month that agency inspectors would visit the Arak reactor by the end of July. Tehran asserts it is building the reactor for research and medical purposes, and not for its plutonium capabilities.
"We had a good discussion and we had constructive progress," Javad Vaeedi, Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator, said after meeting with Heinonen.
"Now we are going to move forward in the best mood and with the best effort," said Vaeedi, the undersecretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. He said both sides planned to meet again in Tehran on Aug. 20.
Heinonen said the IAEA also planned to send another team of inspectors to Iran in about two weeks "to talk about other outstanding issues." He would not elaborate, saying only that discussions would continue over the coming weeks.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said earlier this month that Iran has scaled back its uranium-enrichment program, suggesting that there was a new willingness from the government to resolve the international deadlock over the issue.
The IAEA had described yesterday's talks as an attempt to clarify "the open issues associated with the scope and content of Iran's enrichment program."
Iran's refusal to cooperate and allow inspectors to return to facilities like Arak prompted the Security Council to become involved last year. It has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran over the nuclear standoff.