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Nuclear Agency Calls for Stricter Inspections in Iran

IAEA seeks wider access to reactor sites to investigate possible weapons capability. The U.S. welcomes the move, but Tehran balks.

June 20, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The International Atomic Energy Agency challenged Iran on Thursday to allow unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities to disprove suspicions that they could be used to develop nuclear weapons. But Iran resisted, leaving the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in a diplomatic quandary.

The agency's 35-member board ended a three-day debate Thursday with a statement rebuking Tehran's clandestine import, storage and processing of uranium in defiance of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The agency also expressed concern, in a report presented this week, about Iran's revelations that it was building a heavy-water facility, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Although its statement fell short of the condemnation sought by the U.S., the board did encourage Tehran to accept an additional protocol that would permit full inspections of its nuclear activities. The statement also urged Iran to not put nuclear material into a pilot uranium-enrichment project at Natanz "as a confidence-building measure."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush welcomed the board's statement, adding that the world would be watching Iran's next move. "But if Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons," Fleischer said, "why wouldn't they cooperate fully and completely with the IAEA?"

Bush had pushed for a harder line on Iran, which he has grouped with Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil." He said Wednesday that "the international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon."

Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Salehi, told reporters in Vienna that he was pleased that the board did not bow to U.S. pressure, and he rejected the call for more stringent inspections. "The language of force and threat will be futile and not conducive to the achievement of our common goal," he said.

In Tehran, President Mohammad Khatami said that Iran was prepared to allow wider inspections by the nuclear agency -- but only if the international community recognized Iran's right to acquire advanced peaceful nuclear technology. In the meantime, Iran said it would go ahead with plans to enrich uranium, the next step in a process to produce either nuclear energy or material for nuclear weapons.

Next month, inspectors are expected to return to Iran in the first test of Tehran's willingness to comply with the agency's demands. During the last such visit, Iranian officials refused to let inspectors take environmental samples to check for signs of nuclear activity. The IAEA's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged Iran to be "fully transparent."

"I trust, I expect, that Iran will enable us to do all that we need to do," ElBaradei said

The experts will report on their findings at the next IAEA board meeting in September, but if Tehran continues to defy the inspectors, the issue could come up again in a special July budgetary session, an agency official said.

If diplomacy fails, the next step would be for the IAEA to pass a resolution finding Iran in violation of its nuclear treaty obligations and refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions. Individual countries could also unilaterally restrict trade with Iran to increase pressure to comply. Fleischer declined to address questions about a possible military intervention.

"If I were Iran at this point, I would think seriously about accepting this proposal" of allowing additional inspections, said the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John D. Negroponte.

U.S. officials say the White House is worried that Iran might string out the diplomatic process while it develops a weapon -- or even pull out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, as North Korea did recently-- and then dare the world to react.

Although some board members argued that encouraging Iran's cooperation at this point would yield more results than confrontation, others fear that the pace of diplomacy fosters its own dilemmas.

The IAEA board referred North Korea's openly declared pursuit of nuclear arms to the Security Council in February, but China has blocked the council from seriously addressing the issue. Iran may be counting on its council allies -- especially Russia, which is helping Iran build an $800-million light-water reactor in the city of Bushehr -- to help delay punitive action.

Russia has long defended Tehran's nuclear program, insisting that it is for peaceful purposes, even though Washington says that Iran's ample energy resources and lack of natural uranium make a nuclear power program clearly unnecessary.

Moscow has urged Iran to allow the more intrusive inspections but has said that it will still ship uranium to Bushehr even if Iran refuses, provided it agrees to return all of the spent fuel to Russia to ensure it will not be used in nuclear weapons.

Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, who headed the IAEA when North Korea's nuclear program was discovered, said that Iran could continue to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes under the Nonproliferation Treaty, but that it would be "very good" if Tehran signed the protocol allowing stricter inspections.

"Transparency is very important," he said in an interview Thursday. "Inspection is an institutionalized form of transparency."

Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.

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