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VIENNA (Reuters): The UN nuclear watchdog appears no closer to finding out what happened at a military site at the centre of its investigation into suspected atom bomb research by Iran, despite signs Tehran is becoming more cooperative.

A confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran for the first time in years had begun engaging with a long-stymied IAEA inquiry into allegations that it may have worked on designing a nuclear weapon.

But any hope that Iran may be ready to fully address concerns about its nuclear activities will be tempered as long as it refuses to give the UN agency access to a location at the Parchin base southeast of Tehran, and information about it.

US officials say it is vital for Iran to answer IAEA questions if Washington and five other powers are to reach a broader nuclear settlement with Iran by a self-imposed deadline of July 20. However, Tehran’s repeated denials of any nuclear bomb aspirations will make it hard for it to admit to any wrongdoing in the past without losing face.

The IAEA report issued to member states late on Friday said satellite images showed “ongoing construction activities” at Parchin, a finding that could add to Western suspicions that Iran has been trying to hide any incriminating evidence of illicit nuclear-related experiments there.

“It seems clear that there is more sanitisation going on,” one Western envoy said, noting indications of major alteration work at Parchin since early 2012, such as soil removal and asphalting of the specific place the IAEA wants to see.

“I can think of no other explanation for 28 months of cleanup and denied IAEA access at Parchin except an attempt to hide all traces of something from IAEA environmental sampling.”

The IAEA, which has requested Parchin access for more than two years, says it has information that Iran built a large steel chamber there for explosives tests,

possibly more than a decade ago. It said back in 2011 that “such experiments would be strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development”.

“The activity at Parchin gives ample reason for continued concern that Iran may be trying to remove any remaining vestiges of nuclear-related experiments,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank in London.

But one should not leap to conclusions of guilt, he added. “The activity may also be for some entirely innocuous purpose.”

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