WASHINGTON: There is little hope the latest team of UN nuclear inspectors sent to Iran this week will get any more clarity about whether the Iranians seek the bomb, according to officials.

Said one diplomat: “Our expectations are very low.” The Iranians did not agree to an agenda for the talks ahead of the meeting with a top-level inspection team from the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, said the diplomat, “The IAEA had been trying to come up with an agenda other than just showing up in Iran.” In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “Obviously, one visit by … the IAEA after all this time can’t constitute a complete substantive cooperation and transparency that we, the international community, the IAEA, are calling for. But obviously, the proof will be in the pudding. We’ll have to see whether the IAEA gets into the sites it wants to see, gets the information that it wants to have.”

Iran has a history of offering to talk when it is under pressure, and then stalling so that the talks delay punitive measures against it. The pressure is now stronger that it has ever been. Iran is facing sanctions on its oil sales, the lifeblood of its economy, as well as covert attacks against its nuclear scientists and facilities and a fair amount of US military flexing in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador in Vienna to the IAEA, said clearly that the inspection trip was “aimed at neutralizing enemy plots … and baseless allegations, and proving the peaceful nature of our nuclear activities.”

The politics are not why the IAEA’s chief inspector Herman Nackaerts and its number two Rafael Grossi have flown into Tehran. They want answers about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work, namely whether it is building atomic weapons. Iran has stonewalled this most crucial part of the IAEA’s inspection since August 2008, after clearing up a host of other questions in an inquest that began in February 2003. But even the answers concerning such issues as building centrifuges, contamination by highly enriched uranium and plutonium experiments often came only after Iran had at first failed to give full disclosure. It was a difficult process in which Iran was caught hiding nuclear work and then pressured into responding. Key questions remain. The IAEA issued a landmark report last November that outlined alleged weapons research that apparently was dismantled as a formal program in 2003, just about when US troops were toppling Saddam Hussein in Iran’s neighbor Iraq, and has since continued in other ways. There was, however, no “smoking gun” to prove that Iran has a weapons program, and Iran continues to insist its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity. But two main items of concern based on information from sources the IAEA considers credible hint at a smoking gun.

These are that Iran may be hiding the diversion of some 20 kilograms of uranium metal for weapons research and has worked on the triggers needed to set off an atomic bomb.

Iran has opened its doors to the IAEA at the same time that it is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, and thus cause economic chaos by blocking oil shipments from Gulf states. This mix of threats and conciliation gestures is nothing new almost a decade into the Iranian nuclear crisis. But with the confrontation seeming to be heading into an endgame, all eyes are on the UN inspectors’ visit to see if Iran is ready to show signs of cooperation in order to defuse the current escalation.