UNITED Nations investigators have begun two days of meetings in Iran, offering its government a chance to stem growing speculation that the country's nuclear program will spark a military conflict.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency flew to Tehran yesterday for their second round of talks in a month. The visit begins a week after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country would boost production of 20 per cent-enriched uranium at an underground location near the holy city of Qom.
"This meeting is a crucial opportunity for everyone, including the Iranians, to get serious," Arms Control Association director Daryl Kimball said. "Getting serious means focusing on the near-term problem that 20 per cent-enriched uranium represents [and which drives the] hysterical war talk in some quarters."
Further efforts to play down talk of military action came from Washington and London.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CNN it was "not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran".
"A strike at this time would be destabilising and wouldn't achieve long-term objectives," General Dempsey said, referring to Israel's desire to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. "I wouldn't suggest, sitting here today, that we've persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion."
His concerns were echoed by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said it was "not a wise thing" for Israel to launch military action against Iran.
He told the BBC: "Israel, like everybody else in the world, should be giving a real chance to the approach that we have adopted, of very serious economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and the readiness to negotiate with Iran."
A senior source in the Israeli government said Tel Aviv received Mr Hague's comments with "gravity and seriousness". He said Israel would continue to communicate with the British government through diplomatic channels.
General Dempsey said the sanctions on Iran were starting to have an effect. "We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor," he said. "We also know, or we believe we know, that the Iranian regime has not decided to make a nuclear weapon."
Iran has announced it will stop exporting crude oil to French and British companies, the oil ministry's news website Shana reported.
The halt in shipments followed a warning that Iran might act pre-emptively ahead of a European Union ban on purchases of Iranian crude planned to start in July.
Britain and France depend little on Iranian oil so their targeting may be a mostly symbolic act, a function of the strong positions Paris and London have taken in trying to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment and bring pressure to bear on Syria, one of Tehran's closest allies.
The Vienna-based IAEA said in November that it had "credible" intelligence showing that Iran worked on components needed for a nuclear weapon until 2010. Robert Kelley, a US nuclear weapons scientist and former IAEA inspector, wrote on January 11 that some of the evidence may be forged, a claim that Iran has consistently made.
The IAEA has sought access to Iran's Parchin military base, Lavisan physics centre and centrifuge workshops, and uranium mines. All Iran's declared nuclear material is under IAEA seal, monitored by cameras and subject to regular inspection.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was up to the government in Tehran to assuage suspicions over its atomic work.
"The onus is on the Iranian side to convince the international community that their nuclear program is genuinely peaceful," Mr Ban said. "There is no alternative to a peaceful resolution on this issue."