In a move that could seriously hinder chances of reaching an agreement with world powers, Iran's supreme leader has toughened his position on nuclear negotiations, just a week before the deadline for a final deal.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority in the ongoing talks, said in a televised speech Tuesday that inspectors would not be allowed into military sites and that he would not agree with limits on certain activities, such as uranium enrichment. He also insisted that all US and United Nations (UN) economic and banking sanctions be lifted as soon as a deal is signed.
His comments go against a preliminary framework agreed upon in April after extensive negotiations with six world powers known as the P5+1 — the US, Russia, Britain, China and France, plus Germany.
Transparency over suspicions that Iran might be trying to make nuclear weapons and how quickly sanctions will be lifted have both been contentious in the course of negotiations, as the P5+1 wish to see Tehran put a halt to sensitive nuclear activities for a decade or longer. Iran claims its nuclear ambitions are peaceful and focused on research and energy generation.
"We don't accept 10-year restriction. We have told the negotiating team how many specific years of restrictions are acceptable," said Khamenei in an address broadcast state television, according to an Associated Press translation. "Research and development must continue during the years of restrictions."
"All financial and economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the US Congress, or the US government should be lifted immediately when we sign a nuclear agreement," he added.
Iran says it has been working with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but Khamenei described the agency as "neither independent nor fair" and said access to military facilities is a "red line" that would not be crossed. The nuclear watchdog regularly monitors Iran's state nuclear sites, but has made repeated claims of being blocked from accessing certain sites as well as equipment and personnel.
Khamenei's intervention took place just hours after Iran's parliament passed a bill banning IAEA from military sites and meeting with scientists and documents as part of any deal. The bill would still have to be ratified by Iran's Guardian Council to become law.
The hardened stance could seriously complicate negotiations. British and French officials stressed that thorough inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities would be vital to proving that it isn't developing nuclear weapons. A French official told Reuters that the verification and permission to visit military sites were the main obstacle to reaching a deal. "When, where, what, how all this still needs to be made very clear," the official said. "There is a difference of view between the [Iranian] negotiators and the leader."
The US State Department said over the weekend that inspections would be a key part of any agreement. Khamenei accused Washington of wishing to destroy Iran's entire nuclear infrastructure. "America is after destroying our nuclear industry altogether," he said, according to a Reuters translation, going on to say that Iran's negotiation team wished to "safeguard the country's integrity" and "nuclear achievements."
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is a self-styled moderate keen on building international ties. His election heralded a thawing in American-Iranian relations that helped make discussions possible after more than a decade of disagreement. But he faces domestic opposition, including in the mostly conservative parliament who are in some cases opposed to any engagement on the issue.