Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Tehran cooperates with inspectors of nuclear watchdog

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Iran appeared to have passed a stiff international test on its suspected nuclear weapons program on Friday when the UN nuclear watchdog said Tehran had supplied its inspectors with a "comprehensive" record of a project that goes back 20 years.

Last month the UN body, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set Tehran an ultimatum of revealing all about its nuclear projects by yesterday or risk greater isolation and possible sanctions.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, in Canada yesterday en route to the UN headquarters in New York, sounded optimistic that the Iranians had done enough to escape censure at a crucial IAEA meeting this month in Vienna.

"We are making good progress," ElBaradei said. "At first glance, the report is comprehensive, but we still have to do a lot of finetuning."

Five UN nuclear inspectors were in Tehran yesterday seeking answers from the Iranian regime about its suspected nuclear bomb program.

The inspectors have been in Iran since Monday, poring over the Iranian dossier, which runs to several hundred pages, and seeking further clarification on the history of the program.

They are due back in Vienna this weekend and their findings will inform the report being drafted by ElBaradei on whether Iran has disclosed enough about its nuclear projects and ambitions to avoid being referred to the UN security council -- a move that could result in sweeping sanctions being decreed.

Frustrated by months of stonewalling by Iran as inspectors unearthed details that pointed to a secret bomb project, the IAEA last month set Tehran an ultimatum -- disclose everything about its nuclear programs by Friday or be declared in non-compliance with obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, which it signed in 1970.

The consensus among diplomats in Vienna is that Iran's tactics of incremental disclosure would probably succeed in securing a "non-punitive" verdict from ElBaradei when the IAEA board meets in three weeks' time.

Negotiations last week by the British, French and German foreign ministers secured Iranian pledges on two key factors in the nuclear row, and appear to have defused the crisis for the time being.

The EU troika of ministers went to Iran and secured promises to freeze a uranium enrichment program and to sign an agreement with the IAEA enabling inspectors to go wherever they choose at short notice.

Diplomats in Vienna said the inspections agreement could be signed at the IAEA meeting, which will begin on Nov. 20. But there was some confusion over suspending uranium enrichment.

UN inspectors have twice found traces of weapons-grade uranium at the underground enrichment facility being built at Natanz in central Iran, and a further trace at a factory in Tehran. The Iranians admit they have not yet frozen enrichment activities.

The EU and US aim to see the Natanz facility dismantled. But this is unlikely. Diplomats say the Iranians could suspend enrichment by halting supply of nuclear materials to the centrifuges at Natanz while still continuing to assemble the tens of thousands of centrifuges needed for a full-scale enrichment project.

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