VIENNA (AP) — The U.N. nuclear agency acknowledged renewed failure Wednesday after a trip to probe suspicions of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work, in a statement issued just hours after an Iranian general warned of a pre-emptive strike against any foe threatening the country.
The double signs of defiance reflected Tehran's continued resistance to demands that it defuse suspicions about its nuclear activities despite a growing list of international sanctions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency made little progress in talks that ended just three weeks ago, and hopes had been low that a visit by IAEA experts to Iran that ended late Tuesday would be any more successful even before the agency issued its statement.
It was issued early Wednesday, shortly after midnight and just after the IAEA experts left Tehran, reflecting the agency's urgent wish to tell its side of the story.
As the two-day trip was winding down, Iranian officials sought to cast it in a positive light, with foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast telling reporters that "cooperation with the agency continues and is at its best level."
Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted the Islamic Republic is not seeking nuclear weapons, saying they are "useless, harmful and dangerous," but did not mention the visit by the IAEA experts.
The IAEA team had hoped to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on the alleged weapons program, break down opposition to their plans to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits.
Mission head Herman Nackaerts, in comments after landing at Vienna airport, said his team "approached this trip in a constructive spirit" but "could not find a way forward" in negotiations with Iranian officials. It would now be up to the 35-nation IAEA board to decide on a response when it meets starting March 5, he added.
The language of the IAEA communique clearly — if indirectly — blamed Tehran for the lack of progress.
"We engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached," it quoted IAEA chief Yukiya Amano as saying.
As on the previous visit that ended in early February, Iran did not grant requests by the IAEA mission to visit Parchin — a military site thought to be used for explosives testing related to nuclear detonations, the statement said. Amano called this decision "disappointing."
The statement also said that no agreement was reached on how to begin "clarification of unresolved issues in connection with Iran's nuclear program, particularly those relating to possible military dimensions."
Delegates at the March 5 IAEA board meeting could agree to do nothing beyond listening to individual criticism of Iran from board member countries. But the meeting could also pass a resolution blaming Iran for not cooperating with the IAEA that would go to the U.N. Security Council.
The first board resolution in 2006 was the trigger for four sets of U.N. sanctions in response to Tehran's refusal to scale back activities that could be used to make nuclear arms.
IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said that "at this point in time there is no agreement on further discussions."
The unsuccessful trip was the latest sign of Iranian resistance in the face of international pressure to curb its nuclear activities, despite sanctions and U.S. and Israeli warnings of possible last-resort military action should diplomacy fail.
Iran over the weekend announced that it will stop selling oil to Britain and France in retaliation for a planned European oil embargo this summer. The move was mainly symbolic — Britain and France import almost no oil from Iran — but it raised concerns that Iran could take the same hard line with other European nations that use more Iranian crude.
The European Union buys about 18 percent of Iran's oil exports, though most of that comes from sales to just two countries: Italy and Spain.
Iran lashed out again just hours before the IAEA team left, with Gen. Mohammed Hejazi, who heads the military's logistical wing, warning that Iran will "not wait for enemies to take action against us."
"We will use all our means to protect our national interests," he told the semiofficial Fars news agency.
His comments followed Iran's announcement of war games to practice protecting nuclear and other sensitive sites, the latest military maneuver viewed as a message to the U.S. and Israel that the Islamic Republic is ready both to defend itself and to retaliate against an armed strike.
The official news agency IRNA said the four-day air defense war games, dubbed "Sarallah," or "God's Revenge," were taking place in the south of the country and involve anti-aircraft batteries, radar, and warplanes.
Iran asserts that the allegations of secret work on developing nuclear arms are based on fabricated U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
But in a 13-page summary late last year, Amano listed clandestine activities that he said can either be used in civilian or military nuclear programs, or "are specific to nuclear weapons."
Among these were indications that Iran has conducted high-explosives testing to set off a nuclear charge at Parchin.
Other suspicions include computer modeling of a core of a nuclear warhead and alleged preparatory work for a nuclear weapons test and development of a nuclear payload for Iran's Shahab 3 intermediate range missile — a weapon that could reach Israel.
Beyond denying any covert weapons work, Iran insists concerns that it will turn its uranium enrichment program to making fissile warhead material are unfounded, saying it is enriching only to make nuclear reactor fuel.
Tehran's expanding enrichment activities at its plant at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, are of particular concern for Israel — which has warned it will not let Iran develop nuclear arms — because it is dug into a mountain and possibly resistant to attack.
In interviews late last week, diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran is poised to install thousands of new-generation centrifuges at the cavernous facility. That would mean that Iran would have the capability of enriching to weapons-grade level much more quickly and efficiently that with its present, less efficient mainstay machines.
Associated Press video reporter Philipp Jenne in Vienna contributed.
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn