TEHRAN, Iran— U.N. nuclear inspectors began a critical mission to Iran on Sunday to probe allegations of a secret atomic weapons program amid escalating Western economic pressures and warnings about safeguarding Gulf oil shipments from possible Iranian blockades.
The findings from the three-day visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran's ability to enrich uranium — which Washington and allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but claims it only seeks to fuel reactors for energy and medical research.
The International Atomic Energy Agency team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes. Earlier this month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country's main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.
The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts — Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa — suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.
In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival, the IAEA's Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts — who is in charge of the agency's Iran file — said he wants Tehran to "engage us on all concerns."
Iran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for three years, saying they are based on "fabricated documents" provided by a "few arrogant countries" — a phrase authorities in Iran often use to refer to the United States and its allies.
"So we're looking forward to the start of a dialogue," Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport. "A dialogue that is overdue since very long."
In a sign of the tensions that surround Iran's disputed nuclear program, a dozen Iranian hard-liners carrying photos of slain nuclear expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were waiting at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport early Sunday.
Iranian state media allege that Roshan, a chemistry expert and director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, was interviewed by IAEA inspectors before being killed earlier this month in a targeted bomb attack that Iran claims is part of an Israeli-led covert campaign of sabotage and slayings. Roshan was at least the fourth member of Iran's scientific community to be killed in apparent assassinations.
In Vienna, the IAEA said it does not know Roshan and has never talked to him.
But the IAEA team will be looking for permission to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on a weapons program. They also plan to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits. It's unclear how much assistance Iran will provide, but even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from Iran's frequent simple refusal to talk about them.
Iran also has accused the IAEA in the past of security leaks that expose its scientists and their families to the threat of assassination by the U.S. and Israel.
The visit coincides with planned debate in Iran's parliament over whether to immediately cut the flow of crude oil to Europe in retaliation for sanctions. The European Union last week announced an embargo on Iranian oil that is set to take full effect in July.
The head of Iran's state oil company said Sunday that pressures on Iran's oil exports — the second biggest in OPEC — could drive prices as high as $150 a barrel.
"It seems we will witness prices from $120 to $150 in the future," Ahmad Qalehbani was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He did not give a timeframe for the prediction, nor any other details.
The price of benchmark U.S. crude on Friday was around $99.56 per barrel. About 80 percent of Iran's foreign revenue comes from exporting around 2.2 million barrels of oil per day.
Oil prices have been driven higher in recent weeks by Iran's warnings that it could block the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the route for about one-fifth of the world's oil. Last week, the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, joined by French and British warships, entered the Gulf in a show of strength against any attempts to disrupt oil tanker traffic. (AP)