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By Hossein Jaseb
TEHRAN (Reuters) - U.N. inspectors have arrived in Iran to examine a nuclear site that has heightened Western fears of a covert programme to develop atomic bombs, an accusation the Islamic Republic rejects.
"They arrived late last night for routine inspections," Ali Shirzadian, a spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told Reuters on Sunday. He gave no further details.
The U.N. experts were due to inspect Iran's second enrichment plant, under construction 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran. Iran hid the site for three years until last month, fanning Western suspicions.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants and also to provide material for bombs if enriched further.
Iran, which says it wants only peaceful nuclear energy, agreed to open the new site to monitoring at talks with six world powers -- the United States, Germany, France, Russia, China and Britain -- held in Geneva on October 1.
But a second understanding struck in the Swiss city stumbled on Friday when Iran cast doubt on a plan to send abroad much of its enriched uranium reserve for processing into special fuel for a reactor used to create radioactive isotopes for medical purposes.
World powers regard the two steps as litmus tests of Iran's stated intent to use enriched uranium only for civilian purposes, and as a basis for follow-up talks on curbing enrichment itself, which would bring Iran trade and technology rewards in return.
Influential Iranian lawmakers have criticised the U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel agreement, in comments echoed by an Iranian diplomat on Sunday.
Abolfazl Zorehvand, a former ambassador to Italy, said the plan amounted to a kind of suspension of Iran's enrichment work -- a demand the Islamic state has repeatedly rejected.
"CONFIDENCE-BUILDING"
"If we want to enrich this amount again it would take at least 18 months. During these 18 months they will have time to pressure Iran again and push us in the direction they want to," the official IRNA news agency quoted Zorehvand as saying.
"These signals from the West create mistrust," he said.
A member of parliament's foreign affairs and national security commission made clear he opposed the draft agreement.
"I'm against accepting the deal ... It is not in Iran's interest," ISNA news agency quoted MP Mohammad Karamirad as saying.
Iran has said the centrifuge plant being built in a military compound buried inside a mountain near the Shi'ite holy city of Qom would refine uranium only for civilian nuclear energy.
Western diplomats and analysts say the site's capacity appears too small to fuel a nuclear power station but enough to yield fissile material for one or two nuclear warheads a year.
The four-strong team from the International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards division, led by Herman Nackaerts, who oversees the Middle East region including Iran, declined comment to reporters in Vienna before boarding their flight.
Their stay in Iran is likely to last several days.
The inspectors intend to compare engineering designs to be provided by Iran with the actual facility, interview employees and take environmental samples to verify the site has no illicit military dimension.
A senior lawmaker said Iran, with the U.N. inspections, sent a message of "confidence-building, good interaction and transparency" and it would be "good that the Westerners receive this message correctly," IRNA news agency reported.
MP Hassan Sobhaninia added: "The inspectors can see for themselves... (the) new facilities and like always before become aware of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities."
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi; writing by Mark Heinrich and Fredrik Dahl; editing by Jon Boyle)

Reuters