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Waiting For An Accord, IAEA Readies To Verify Iran's Nuclear Program

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Close but still no deal. That is the message from Vienna, where more foreign ministers have been arriving to join Iran nuclear talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday. Here is Kerry afterwards.

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SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The truth is that while I completely agree with Foreign Minister Zarif that we have never been closer, at this point this negotiation could go either way.

GREENE: Now, if there is a deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, will have an important job verifying that Iran is keeping its nuclear commitments. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that like all aspects of this sensitive deal, the U.N. agencies' ability to catch violations will come under some intense scrutiny.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, told reporters in Vienna over the weekend that there could be a report by the end of the year on whether Iran once had a nuclear weapons program. He also said this agency is ready and able to verify a nuclear deal.

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YUKIYA AMANO: The IAEA is ready to implement the nuclear-related elements when requested.

KENYON: IAEA staff don't usually talk publicly about their work, but some former IAEA officials do. Robert Kelley is a former inspector, and he says the agency is great at doing things like measuring and tracking nuclear fuel, but he feels that making sure a country doesn't have a clandestine nuclear weapons program hidden somewhere requires additional skills.

ROBERT KELLEY: The purpose of the IAEA is to monitor quantities of nuclear material, and they do that extremely well. But when it comes to doing things like satellite imagery analysis, basically intelligence analysis, they don't have the people. And even more importantly, they don't have the culture.

KENYON: Although it reports to the U.N. Security Council, the IAEA is an independent agency created by international treaty nearly 60 years ago. It has a broad mandate, including general nuclear safety. Other IAEA veterans, like Olli Heinonen, former head of nuclear safeguards at the agency, don't buy the argument that an Iran deal would saddle the IAEA with an unprecedented burden.

OLLI HEINONEN: First of all, what is unprecedented here? There's nothing much unprecedented here, the way I see it.

KENYON: Heinonen says in North Korea and in South Africa, inspectors carried out verification measures that were arguably more arduous than what may be required as part of an Iran deal. The results, of course, were mixed. North Korea kicked out the inspectors and acquired a bomb. South Africa built several bombs and then dismantled them. Heinonen says South Africa also allowed the IAEA to dig into its nuclear past, something he thinks Iran should agree to now. But that's a hard sell in Iran, where the IAEA under Amano is seen by many as aligned with Washington and against the Islamic republic.

Former Iranian negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian cites a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. mission in Vienna. It described Amano as solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, including Iran's alleged weapons program. Even so, Mousavian says, a nuclear deal now might bring the kind of warmer relations needed to help the IAEA wrap up the past military issue.

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Because you know, Peter, they are related to 1980. They have nothing to do with the current Iranian nuclear program and they can really finish it in two to three months.

KENYON: The agency supporters say there are two things to keep in mind - not only can the IAEA be fair regarding Iran, but there really is no one else, no other global entity with a track record and U.N. backing in a position to take on this crucial task. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.