Image via WikipediaIran's disputed nuclear drive will top the agenda of a meeting of the UN atomic watchdog this week, a prelude to the resumption of long-stalled talks between Tehran and world powers. The International Atomic Energy Agency convenes for its traditional year-end board meeting at its Vienna headquarters on Thursday and Friday, with the latest report on its long-running investigation into the Islamic republic's nuclear activities set to dominate debate.
Those discussions will effectively serve as a curtain-raiser to a much higher-level round of talks in Geneva three days later where Iran is to sit down with the so-called P5+1 grouping of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany for the first time in over a year.
The IAEA has been investigating Iran's nuclear programme for eight years now to try and establish whether it is entirely peaceful as Tehran claims or whether it masks a covert drive to build a bomb as western powers believe.
In his latest report, circulated to IAEA member states last week, watchdog chief Yukiya Amano complained that Iran was defying UN Security Council resolutions and pressing ahead with uranium enrichment, even if the activities appeared to have run into some sort of technical problems recently.
Iran is under four sets of UN sanctions over its refusal to suspend enrichment of uranium, which can be used to make nuclear fuel or, in highly extended form, the fissile core of an atom bomb.
And the sense of unease in the Middle East was underlined by the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables in which the Saudi king was described as pushing Washington to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Earlier this week, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted that some of the equipment in the enrichment process had been damaged by a computer malware amid speculation the activities were the target of a cyber-attack.
But he nevertheless insisted that Iran's "right to enrich uranium and produce (nuclear) fuel... is non-negotiable."
The exact agenda of the December 6-7 talks in Geneva is not clear: while the world powers want to focus on the enrichment issue, Tehran wants a wider discussion that includes regional security issues.
The last round of negotiations deadlocked in October 2009.
In addition to Iran, the IAEA's 35-member board of governors will also discuss the agency's latest report on alleged illicit nuclear activities in Syria.
Damascus is accused of building an undeclared reactor at a remote desert site called Dair Alzour until it was bombed by Israeli planes in September 2007.
The IAEA has been investigating the allegations since 2008 and has already said that the building bore some of the characteristics of a nuclear facility.
UN inspectors also detected "significant" traces of man-made uranium at that site, as yet unexplained by Damascus.
In addition, the watchdog has also requested access to three other locations allegedly functionally related to Dair Alzour, but so far to no avail.
Diplomats close to the IAEA say agency chief Amano is growing increasingly impatient with Syria's stonewalling and could soon start pushing for a so-called "special inspection" in Damascus, a rarely-used tool that allows UN inspectors to request more intrusive access to sites. If Syria were to block that request, it could face referral to the UN Security Council.
North Korea will also be on the IAEA agenda, even if UN inspectors have been barred from the reclusive stalinist state.
Earlier this month a US scientist revealed he had been shown a new uranium enrichment plant equipped with at least 1,000 centrifuges at the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex outside the capital Pyongyang.
The news heightened international concern that the communist regime -- which has conducted two nuclear weapons tests -- could produce highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium on top of the plutonium already in its possession.
Finally, the IAEA board is set to discuss a US-backed proposal for a nuclear fuel bank, which countries could turn to if their regular supplies were cut.
Diplomats said they expect the board to adopt the proposal.http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iran_Syria_in_spotlight_at_UN_atomic_watchdog_meet_999.html