Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili

Vienna -

The UN nuclear agency expressed confidence Friday that it will clinch a deal with Iran next month under which Tehran will at last answer “credible” evidence of atomic weapons research, but analysts and Western diplomats were sceptical.

Returning from “good meetings” in Tehran on Thursday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief inspector Herman Nackaerts said that although Iran did not grant access to a key military base as he had hoped, he said this was “part of” the mooted accord.

Such a breakthrough, if it really happens, could indicate that Iran, under massive sanctions pressure Ä augmented by fresh US restrictions announced Thursday - may give ground in parallel diplomatic efforts with six world powers stalled since June.

But that is a big “if”, experts say.

“We have agreed to meet again on 16 January next year, where we expect to finalise the structured approach and start implementing it then shortly after that,” Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport.

Iran said that the meetings were “constructive, positive, and good progress has been made”.

The IAEA wants Iran to address substantively a mass of what the agency calls “overall, credible” evidence set out in a major 2011

report that Iran did weapons research up until 2003, and possibly since then.

Iran denies seeking or ever having sought nuclear weapons, and has rejected the alleged evidence outright in a string of previous fruitless meetings with the IAEA this year in Tehran and Vienna.

This is because the bulk is from foreign intelligence agencies, including from arch-foe Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state which has refused to rule out bombing Iran to stop it also getting the bomb.

The IAEA has zeroed in on Parchin near Tehran because its information on activities there is “independent”, such as from commercially available satellite imagery or an unnamed “foreign expert”. Nackaerts had said Wednesday his team was ready to go there.

Parallel efforts by “P5+1” world powers are focused more on Iran's current activities, rather than the past, in particular Tehran's expanding ability to enrich uranium to fissile purities of 20 percent.

Iran says that this is for a research reactor in Tehran producing nuclear medicines, but when further purified to 90

percent, such material can be used in a nuclear bomb.

Multiple UN Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to suspend all enrichment because the IAEA, which closely monitors Iran's nuclear sites, says it is “unable” to conclude that all activities are peaceful.

The six powers Ä Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany Ä are thought to be discussing possible changes to an offer rejected by Iran in their last round of talks in Moscow in June, with a new meeting expected soon.

Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London warned in reference to the IAEA talks however that “we have been down this road before”.

“Back in January, Iran similarly led the IAEA to expect that a deal was in sight, only to find hardliners in Tehran insisting on putting up roadblocks,” Fitzpatrick told AFP.

Nackaerts returned from Tehran in late January after “good” talks, only for a subsequent meeting in February to produce no deal. IAEA director general Yukiya Amano's expectations of an accord “soon” after his visit to Tehran in May also came to nothing.

Diplomats also noted that Washington warned last month that it would seek to get the IAEA board to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if there is no progress by the board's next meeting in March, something which Iran would be keen to avoid.

“Until an agreement is finalised, I react with caution to Iran's promises to conclude one; Iran has not upheld such commitments in the past,” one Western envoy told AFP on condition of anonymity. - Sapa-AFP