UNITED NATIONS — The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency said Monday that the inquiry into Iran's nuclear case was not closed, as the country's president proclaimed to the United Nations last month, and called it regrettable that Iran continued to enrich uranium despite the Security Council's demand to stop the process.
Mohamed ElBaradei's annual report to the General Assembly in New York hinted that, despite his best efforts to persuade Iran to come clean on its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency could not verify that Iran's program was purely for peaceful energy purposes. That finding may open the door for the Security Council to consider even harsher sanctions on Iran next month.
But ElBaradei said that none of Iran's declared nuclear material had been diverted toward making a weapon, and that Iran had answered questions about past clandestine plutonium experiments.
Those developments gave him hope that Iran would resolve unanswered issues about its secretive nuclear program and avoid further penalties and threats from frustrated Security Council members.
ElBaradei has made clear that he prefers negotiation over confrontation, and that he believes that if Iran is actually trying to build a weapon, it is still years away from being able to do so.
"We have said that we cannot give Iran a pass right now, because there's still a lot of question marks," the Egyptian diplomat told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday. "But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No. So there is a concern, but there is also time to clarify these concerns."
He chided the Bush administration for attempting to increase pressure on Iran, saying that "we should continue to stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue because that's an issue that could have a major conflagration, and not only regionally, but globally."
ElBaradei's stance has put him in repeated conflict with the Bush administration, which tried to scuttle his election for a second term as the atomic energy agency's director-general. The U.S. is leading efforts in the Security Council to impose a new round of economic and political penalties on Tehran, a move that has been tempered repeatedly by China and Russia.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the Security Council's permanent members and Germany were preparing a resolution with tougher measures in anticipation of ElBaradei's report on Iran's cooperation, expected in mid-November.
"We believe that the Iranian nuclear issue is one of the most important, defining issues of our time," Khalilzad said. "And given the record of this regime, the rhetoric of this regime, the policies of this regime, the connections of this regime, it cannot be acceptable for it to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons."