Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iran `holiday' postpones nuclear site inspections

SUSPICIONS The Iranians say the delay in allowing inspections is a `vacation issue,' but others wonder if they are seeking more time to hide secret programs

REUTERS , VIENNA

Iran on Friday postponed crucial UN inspections of its nuclear sites for what it called holiday reasons and dismissed charges by some Western diplomats that it may be hiding a weapons programme.

The postponement occurred at the end of a week of negotiations at the UN nuclear watchdog on a resolution that Washington hopes will keep the door open for a report to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions against Iran.

"The Iranians have postponed the inspections until the second half of April, possibly the end of April," a diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"If they really have nothing to hide, it's fully against their interests [to delay] because people who accuse them of having a weapons programme are getting a lot of ammunition," the diplomat said.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Pirooz Hosseini, said the only reason for the postponement was Iran's New Year's holiday which begins next week.

"This is just purely a vacation issue, a holiday issue," he said. "That was the main reason, the only reason."

The US suspects Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons and accuses it of systematically hiding evidence of its research and development. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only and has accepted snap inspections.

A Western diplomat on the IAEA's board of governors said a number of countries had expected Iran to begin limiting cooperation with the IAEA because it had something to hide.

"This could be it," the diplomat said.

An IAEA spokeswoman declined to comment on the postponement.

The US has said it is confident the IAEA will warn Tehran it may face sanctions within months and wants the watchdog to get tough if Tehran fails to fully comply by June.

In backroom meetings at the IAEA, Canadian, Australian and European diplomats negotiated with counterparts from Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries over a resolution on Iran.

Diplomats said there was strong resistance from NAM countries, as well as from the politically powerful Russians and Chinese, to an Australian-Canadian draft that suggests a military link to Iran's atomic programme.

The US and the European Union's "Big Three," France, Britain and Germany, struck a tentative deal this week on the draft.

NAM states have 13 out of 35 seats on the IAEA board that usually seeks to adopt resolutions by consensus.

The draft "deplores" omissions IAEA inspectors uncovered in an Iranian declaration last October that Tehran billed at the time as a full disclosure of its nuclear activities.

These included its failure to mention advanced designs for centrifuges capable of enriching uranium for use in nuclear power plants or, potentially, in a weapon.

NAM countries have proposed a series of amendments to tone down the draft resolution, and say the word "deplores" must be changed to "strongly regrets" or something else.

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