updated 1/22/2007 1:43:46 PM ET 2007-01-22T18:43:46

Iran has barred entry to 38 inspectors from the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency after hard-liners demanded retaliation for U.N. sanctions imposed on Tehran last month, officials said on Monday.

The IAEA confirmed Iranian word of the ban but said this would not handicap its monitoring of a plant where Iran plans soon to expand from experimental into industrial-scale output of nuclear fuel in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Iran’s ISNA news agency said the move was a “first step” in limiting cooperation with the IAEA in line with a demand made by the hard-line parliament after the Council agreed the sanctions.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to build atom bombs under the cover of a professed civilian nuclear energy program, while Tehran insists it aims solely to generate electricity.

“Iran has decided not to give entry permission to 38 inspectors from the IAEA and has announced this limitation to the IAEA officially,” the head of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said.

“The nationality of those who were barred is not the main basis for us,” he told ISNA, without elaborating.

Iranian government officials were not available for comment. They had said earlier Tehran would continue basic cooperation with IAEA inspections and had no intention of quitting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty over the new sanctions.

“We are discussing with Iran its request for withdrawing the designation of certain safeguards inspectors,” the IAEA said in a short statement issued by its Vienna headquarters.

Inspections intact, IAEA says
“It should be noted however, that there are a sufficient number of inspectors designated for Iran and the IAEA is able to perform its inspection activities in accordance with Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement,” it said.

“There may be some thought in Iran that this (ban) could be one of the things they could do that wouldn’t really harm the inspection effort but still look dramatic and hard-line (for domestic consumption),” said a diplomat familiar with the case.

IAEA inspectors carry out regular checks of Iran’s atomic sites to try to verify it is not diverting materials into bomb production in violation of the treaty.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Iran could only benefit from abandoning its nuclear program.

“If the Iranians want peaceful civil nuclear power, we are perfectly happy to be able to provide it and in the process also to provide some of the other things that the Iranian people want and deserve,” he told reporters.

Tougher sanctions could loom
The IAEA has more than 200 inspectors in its Iran pool. Many carry out jobs in Iran periodically in addition to work in other countries, with a smaller number assigned solely to Iran.

A diplomat versed in IAEA operations in Iran said only a few of the banned inspectors were believed to be Iran specialists who help prepare sensitive reports on Iranian nuclear activity for the agency’s 35-nation board of governors.

The Security Council resolution requires the IAEA to issue such a report by Feb. 21 to attest whether Iran has suspended uranium enrichment. If it has not, tougher sanctions would loom.

IAEA officials declined to give the nationalities of the barred inspectors, citing confidentiality rules. But one official said the IAEA was in touch with Tehran on possible replacements for those on the blacklist.

Iran has a legal right to reject any inspector it wants since such a step is not prohibited by its safeguards accord.

The U.N. sanctions imposed on Dec. 23 ban transfers of sensitive materials and know-how to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs over its refusal to stop enriching uranium, a process that can yield fuel for power stations or material for bombs.

In response, Iran’s parliament passed a bill obliging the government to revise its cooperation level with the IAEA.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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