The chief U.N. nuclear inspector said Monday his agency cannot guarantee that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful despite four years of investigations and that doubts will persist until Tehran decides to cooperate with his experts.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, spoke as board member nations of the IAEA gathered for a session on approving the suspension of dozens of technical aid programs to Iran as part of Security Council sanctions meant to punish Tehran for its nuclear defiance.
Although the issue is not expected to come up until Tuesday at the earliest, the focus of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board meeting will be on Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities and linked problems.
Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, said again his country would "never give up its inalienable right" to develop enrichment — which Tehran says it wants to develop to generate power but which also can produce the fissile material for nuclear warheads.
Still, ElBaradei told reporters that the Islamic republic appeared to have paused in developing its enrichment program amid Security Council deliberations on sharpening existing sanctions imposed because Tehran refuses freeze enrichment activities.
"I do not believe that the number of centrifuges has increased, nor do I believe that nuclear material has been introduced to the centrifuges at Natanz," he said, referring to the machines used to enrich uranium.
"The situation today is still very much R&D activities," he said.
But ElBaradei, whose agency has spent more than four years probing the nature of Tehran's nuclear activities, said the IAEA remains "unable to provide the required assurance about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
In opening comments, he said that unless Tehran takes "the long overdue decision" to cooperate with the IAEA, it "will have no option but to reserve its judgment about Iran's nuclear program, and as a result the international community will continue to express concern."
"Quite a few uncertainties still remain about experiments, procurements and other (nuclear) activities," he said, alluding to a constant theme in IAEA reports over the past years — refusal by Iran to meet agency requests for clarification about aspects of its program that could have possible weapons applications.
Diplomats familiar with the agency's Iran file said before the closed meeting that Tehran continues to refuse IAEA requests to install cameras that would give agency monitors a full view of its underground hall at Natanz, which Iran says will ultimately house 54,000 enriching centrifuges — enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons a year.
Growing fears that Tehran might be seeking to develop enrichment capabilities for its weapons applications led the U.N. Security Council late last year to impose sanctions on Tehran.
Iran's decision in late January to bar 38 inspectors from entering the country also was burdening relations with the agency, said another diplomat. In taking such action, Iran claimed to have found one senior expert "spying for his home country" by using wiretapping equipment to collect information, the diplomat said.
IAEA officials said they would not comment on the claim.
Up for review will be a Feb. 22 report from ElBaradei finding that Tehran has expanded enrichment.
The board was expected to approve last month's decision by ElBaradei to suspend nearly half the technical aid his agency provides to Iran. Only North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq have faced such punishment in the past.
The decision would be in line with existing U.N. Security Council sanctions.
ElBaradei, in an internal report circulated to board members last month, had called for full or partial suspension of 18 projects that he deemed could be misused to create nuclear weapons. His agency had already suspended aid to Iran in five instances in January.
The board has often been split on what action to take against Iran. The United States, its key allies and most European nations have usually been opposed by nonaligned board members who were against harsh punishment.
But the diplomats said that even nations normally backing Tehran — including key U.S. critics such as Cuba and Venezuela — would likely agree to the suspensions because they were backed by the U.N. Security Council.
Soltanieh said Iran was "fully prepared to remove ambiguities and ... assure that these activities are and will be exclusively for peaceful purposes." Still, world powers have rejected renewed talks unless Tehran first freezes its enrichment program — something Tehran dismisses as an unacceptable precondition.
The board will also be reviewing another key nuclear issue — North Korea's apparent willingness to ultimately dismantle its nuclear arms-making capabilities.
ElBaradei plans to go to Pyongyang March 13 as part of the six-nation agreement under which North Korea agreed to allow a return of his agency's experts under its commitment to eventually scrap its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and security assurances.
North Korea kicked IAEA monitors out in late 2002, at the beginning of the current nuclear standoff, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reactivating its mothballed nuclear program, which led to its first-ever atomic weapons test in October.
The meeting also was presented a letter from 17 Arab nations plus Palestinian authorities submitted to the IAEA and made available to The Associated Press that called for Israel to be put under IAEA inspections, asserting that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last year acknowledged that his country had nuclear weapons — something Olmert has denied doing.