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Nuclear questions on Iran unresolved

The U.N. watchdog agency says it is unable to provide assurances about the nation's atomic activities.

September 23, 2008|Julia Damianova and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

VIENNA — The world's top arms control authority harshly criticized Iran on Monday, saying it had failed to clear up questions about its nuclear past, while the Islamic Republic accused the agency of becoming a tool for Western pressure.

Mohamed ElBaradei, secretary-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told his board of directors at an annual meeting here that his inspectors failed to get Iranians to clear up questions related to documents allegedly showing that Iran engaged in a series of experiments and studies consistent with the operation of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

"Iran needs to give the agency substantive information to support its statements and provide access to relevant documentation and individuals," ElBaradei told the 35-member board, according to a transcript of his remarks.

"Unless Iran provides such transparency . . . the agency will not be able to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."

Iranian officials say the documents, purportedly smuggled out of Iran on a laptop, are forgeries, and on Monday they took aim at the United States.

They accused Washington of interfering with the IAEA's work by refusing to let Iran view the documents -- referred to as the "alleged studies" by diplomats -- or copies of them.

The alleged studies purport to show that Tehran conducted secret uranium experiments, tested explosives and pondered bomb designs suitable for nuclear weapons.

"A member has been accused by another member without presentation of any documents on the accused claim," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, told reporters in Vienna, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"The U.S. will become further isolated with such a behavior."

Frustrated Western diplomats have scoffed at the Iranian response. Tehran has never noted which aspects of the alleged studies it maintains are not true and refuses to provide access to key officials in Iran who might answer the question. Meanwhile, Iran continues to slowly expand its capacity to produce enriched uranium in defiance of four U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The process of enriching uranium can provide fuel for civilian power plants -- Iran's stated goal -- or, at a higher level of enrichment, provide material for a nuclear weapon.

Still, most diplomats say they doubt the IAEA governing board can come together over the next week to issue a resolution against Iran, which could bolster the case for a fourth round of economic sanctions on Iran.

Over the next few days, the IAEA is likely to attempt to clarify specific steps it wants Iran to take.

The agency this week will also take up questions about Syria's alleged nuclear program and North Korea, which agreed to take steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons infrastructure this year.

ElBaradei noted that North Korean authorities recently brought back equipment they had previously disassembled. He also said they asked the agency's inspectors Monday to remove seals and surveillance equipment at the plant in Yongbyon to enable them to carry out tests, which they say will not involve nuclear material.

ElBaradei also reported that his inspectors found no evidence of nuclear material at Syria's Al Kibar site, which Israel bombed a year ago. Inspectors found nothing supporting Israeli and U.S. intelligence contentions that the site was a plutonium factory being built by North Korea, but they still await Syria's permission to examine nearby sites.

ElBaradei also said he had no luck in organizing a forum to declare the volatile Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Currently, Israel is believed to be the only nation in the region with nuclear weapons, though it has not declared it has such an arsenal.

The chief inspector, an Egyptian and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is expected to leave the agency next year after having served 12 years at its helm.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Damianova reported from Vienna and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.

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