TEHRAN - Iran on Tuesday announced it was loading domestically produced, 20-percent enriched uranium fuel into its Tehran reactor, underlining its atomic progress on the eve of crucial talks with six world powers in Baghdad.
The announcement came as Iranian negotiators prepared to face off with representatives from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, the so-called P5+1, in Baghdad on Wednesday over its nuclear agenda.
Meanwhile, a senior US lawmaker warned Tuesday that Iran's apparent deal with the IAEA on greater cooperation on suspected weapons activities is a "stalling tactic" to give Tehran more time to acquire nuclear capability. Hawkish Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has pressed for tighter sanctions on the Islamic republic, made her assessment on the eve of crunch talks between Iran and world powers over Tehran's nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials on Tuesday sought to pour cold water on hopes of an emerging deal between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran to try and solve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear drive. "We are highly sceptical about this apparent agreement between the IAEA and Iran," a senior official told AFP. Earlier on Tuesday, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said the UN nuclear watchdog would sign an accord "quite soon" with Iran in a bid to end the long-running crisis over its atomic activities, in what he termed an "important development."
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak accused Iran of playing for time in order to relieve pressure ahead of key talks with world powers in Iraq on Wednesday.
"It appears that the Iranians are trying to reach a 'technical agreement' which will create the impression of progress in the talks, in order to remove some of the pressure before the talks tomorrow in Baghdad as well as to put off an intensification of the sanctions," he said in remarks sent out by his office.
"Israel believes that Iran should be shown a clear line so there is no 'window or crack' through which they can go to advance their military nuclear programme."
Other senior officials took a similar stance.
"We are pretty suspicious," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nine-member inner circle.
"We have seen the Iranians playing hide-and-seek for years with the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency," he told Israel's army radio.
Amano's remarks were made on his return to Vienna after top-level talks in Tehran which touched on gaining access to the Parchin military site, where the watchdog believes weapons-related activity took place.
But the official criticised the fact that the planned accord only appeared to deal with supervision of Iran's nuclear facilities and not with the wider question of what many suspect is an attempt to develop a weapons capability.
"This apparent agreement with Iran only deals with IAEA supervision; it doesn't deal with the bigger issue: stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," he said.
He said Iran had a history of violating agreements with the IAEA.
"We saw in the past how agreements between the IAEA and Iran were flagrantly violated by Iran," he said.
"We saw that specifically when they hid two nuclear facilities, one in Natanz and one near Qom. We saw the same with North Korea, which despite their agreement with the IAEA, continued to develop nuclear arms."
Senior officials within Israel's military intelligence services believe Iran will do whatever it takes to buy itself a little more time.
"Iran wants talks to continue, to avoid being forced to close its Qom facility and to stop enriching uranium," Brigadier General Itai Brun told the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and defence.
Brun, who heads the intelligence service's research division, said Iran currently had 450 missiles capable of hitting the Jewish state, but did not say if any of them were capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
News of the IAEA deal was announced on the eve of fresh talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers due to take place in Baghdad, which on Monday saw Netanyahu urging the international community to show "determination, not weakness" over Iran's nuclear drive.
Israel is insisting that Iran stop enriching uranium, whether to 20 percent or to 3.5 percent, and that it send all its stocks of enriched uranium out of the country and dismantle its Fordo plant near the Shiite shrine city of Qom.
"Even if the Iranians are allowed to hold a symbolic amount - a few hundred kilogrammes of 3.5 percent enriched uranium - it needs to be under tight supervision," Barak said.
"This will guarantee that at any given moment, the Iranians will not have enough uranium to enable the development of a military nuclear capability," he said.
"It is absolutely forbidden to make any concessions to Iran. The demands of the world powers must be clear and unequivocal."
Israel, widely considered the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, says an atomic Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and has refused to rule out the option of a pre-emptive military strike.
Amos Gilad, a senior official in Barak's office, said Iran's main aim was to "get rid of the terrible burden of sanctions."
"They will not give up as long as their leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khameini - with the Revolutionary Guards in the background - is in power," he told army radio.