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Bush, ElBaradei to Discuss Safeguarding Nuclear Technology

March 15, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector and a critic of U.S. claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, will meet with President Bush this week to discuss ways to tighten controls on nuclear technology and expertise.

The meeting, requested by the White House, comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is headed by ElBaradei, and nations worldwide search for the means to prevent advanced nuclear technology from being sold, as it was to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Bush wants to discuss proposals to make the sale of nuclear technology a crime, strengthen the IAEA's ability to monitor nuclear proliferation and reduce access to equipment used to enrich uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials in Washington and diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.

The agenda is also expected to include Iran's decision Saturday to freeze IAEA inspections of its facilities. Tehran acted in response to a strongly worded resolution approved by the IAEA board that criticizes Iran for concealing some of its nuclear activities, which Washington alleges are part of a weapons program.

A senior U.S. official in Washington said Bush was eager to talk with ElBaradei despite their differences over Iraq and how tough to be in condemning Iran's halting disclosures and omissions about its nuclear program.

In addition to his talks with Bush, which are scheduled for Thursday, ElBaradei is to meet with CIA Director George J. Tenet to discuss ways to share intelligence on nuclear proliferation and black markets. The issue took on added significance with the recent disclosure of a Pakistani scientist's role in providing nuclear technology and know-how to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

"He's obviously not someone we've agreed with on everything going down the road," the U.S. official said of ElBaradei. "But he's a serious guy, and somebody that we have worked with and look forward to working with."

ElBaradei contradicted the administration last year by saying inspectors had found no evidence of a continuing nuclear program in Iraq. Some U.S. officials have criticized him for not coming down harder on Iran after the discoveries of its concealed activities and for not detecting Libya's nuclear program.

ElBaradei will complete his second four-year term as IAEA director in September 2005, and he is required to tell the governing board this September whether he intends to seek another term. An official close to ElBaradei said he had not yet decided about another term.

Names of possible replacements are circulating in the corridors of the IAEA headquarters, and some diplomats said successors were being pushed by hard-line elements of the Bush administration.

"It started quietly last year after ElBaradei spoke out about Iraq, but it has heated up in the last few weeks," a Western diplomat in Vienna said.

The U.S. provides 25% of the IAEA's annual budget, far more than any other country. The Bush administration decided last year to keep the figure at that level despite reducing its contributions to other United Nations organizations to 22%.

If Washington got behind a campaign to replace ElBaradei, it would be difficult for him to seek another four years, diplomats in Vienna said. But U.S. officials in Washington strongly denied any effort to encourage other candidates for the job and said criticism of ElBaradei did not reflect administration policy.

"We're working Libya, we're working Iran, and we've got proliferation initiatives coming out of our ears," said the senior U.S. official. "He does, too, and we're going to work with him."

Analysts predicted that the U.S. would face tough resistance if it sought to replace ElBaradei, particularly with someone viewed as more hawkish.

"I'm not sure even the Brits would go along on something like this," said Jon B. Wolfsthal, deputy director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Times staff writer Douglas Frantz in Vienna contributed to this report.

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