A four-member team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has carried out the first round of inspections of Iran’s second uranium enrichment facility on Sunday.

“The inspectors who arrived in Iran on Sunday visited the facility in central Iran. They are expected to visit the site again,” said Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency.

Built inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom and called Fordo, the new facility, which reportedly is still under construction, is being described by officials as a back-up for Tehran’s main uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. Officials say the back-up is being established in the wake of Israeli threats to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Analysts say it is expected that the IAEA inspectors would study whether the new facility is in any way connected to an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

Iran informed the IAEA about the existence of the Fordo facility on September, generating an angry response from the West, which wants Iran to adopt steps that demonstrate that it is not developing nuclear weapons. Iran has denied pursuing an atomic weapons programme, citing its less than 5 per cent enrichment of uranium, which cannot be used for weapons.

The visit of the inspectors comes at a time when Iran is hotly debating whether to accept the IAEA’s proposal of Wednesday of sending abroad for further refinement, the bulk of its Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) stockpile.

Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has expressed his strong opposition to shifting uranium to Russia and France for conversion into metal fuel rods for use in a Tehran reactor producing medical isotopes.

“I see no links between providing the fuel for the Tehran reactor and sending Iran’s low enriched uranium abroad,” he was quoted as saying.

After three days of talks in Vienna, which ended on Wednesday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei handed over a draft agreement to all participants Iran, U.S., Russia and France. The proposal, according to diplomats, requires Iran to send by the year-end 1.2 metric tonnes of its 1.5-tonne stockpile of LEU to Russia and France.

Iranian academics say past experience over procuring uranium enriched overseas is dissuading Iranians to accept the proposal to transfer their LEU stocks abroad. The last consignment of enriched uranium for the Tehran facility apparently took five years to deliver, despite the IAEA approving the deal in 1988.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, another influential law-maker has also opposed sending Iranian LEU abroad, saying the material enriched to a level of 3.5 per cent can be used domestically for the generation of electricity in the future. Some others close to the Iranian establishment have argued that Iran should be sending its LEU stocks, only in instalments, and not in one go.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, who is Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, has said in an interview on Saturday that Iran planned to purchase the material required for its Tehran facility. “Tehran has simply preferred to purchase the fuel, despite having the expertise to process uranium to a level of 20 per cent,” Iran’s state-run Press TV quoted him as saying.

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