Iran has agreed to grant access to a military site the United States links to a secret nuclear weapons program, and the first U.N. inspectors could arrive within days, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mohamed ElBaradei also criticized reported U.S. bugging of his phone conversations, saying such actions crippled his agency's ability to act independently of national agendas.
And in comments likely to annoy the United States, he suggested the time was approaching to wind down 2½ years of intense focus on Iranian activities, which Washington insists are an effort to make nuclear weapons and treat Tehran as just another IAEA member.
ElBaradei's agency has been pressing Tehran for months to be allowed to inspect the Parchin military complex, used by the Iranians to research, develop and produce ammunition, missiles and high explosives. On Wednesday, he said IAEA experts could be in Parchin "within days or weeks."
In leaks to media last year, U.S. intelligence officials said that a specially secured site on the Parchin complex, about 20 miles southeast of Tehran, may be used in research on making high-explosive components for use in nuclear weapons.
The IAEA has not found any firm evidence to challenge Iranian assertions that its military is not involved nuclear activities.
But an IAEA report in October expressed concern about published intelligence and media reports relating to equipment and materials that could serve military purposes.
Diplomats said that phrasing alluded to Parchin.
Iran has been the main focus of the IAEA since mid-2002, after revelations of two secret nuclear facilities — a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant near Arak.
That led to a subsequent IAEA investigation of what turned out to be nearly two decades of covert nuclear activities, including suspicious "dual-use" experiments that can be linked to weapons programs.
As part of his investigation, ElBaradei has produced a series of reports detailing the progress of investigations for guidance by the IAEA board on deciding what to do about Iran's nuclear activities.
Despite the revelations of dual-use activities and a large-scale uranium enrichment program that could be used to make nuclear weapons, ElBaradei has stopped short of declaring Tehran in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
That has fed U.S. frustrations. Insisting that Iran has violated the treaty, Washington has repeatedly urged the board to ask the U.N. Security Council to take Tehran to task.
Senior U.S. officials have blamed ElBaradei for the board's refusal to do so, suggesting he is too soft on Iran and that they will opposed his bid this year for a third term as IAEA head.
As part of U.S. efforts to oust ElBaradei, his telephone conversations were reportedly bugged in what media recently reported were attempts to prove favoritism toward Iran.
ElBaradei said any such action "interferes with my basic human right to privacy — but more importantly it interferes in our ability to work in an independent manner," free of the very favoritism he stands accused of.
He said he will "continue to keep the board updated" on Iran. But he said that he may decide not to produce a new report on Tehran's nuclear activities for the next board meeting in March, adding that he hoped to reduce the Iran file to "routine reporting" over the next six months.
Such steps would fuel U.S. anger by effectively suggesting that the probe of Tehran's nuclear activities was no longer important enough to warrant special consideration.
ElBaradei's agency is monitoring an Iranian commitment made in November tothat could be used to make the core for nuclear weapons. He said Wednesday that there had been no violations of that agreement.
ElBaradei declined to comment directly on reports thatthat could be used in a nuclear weapons program.
But he suggested that his agency did not view Egypt as violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, saying "any (such) proliferation concern or any implication of a weapons program" would be reported to the IAEA board of governors.
Egypt's government rejected claims it is or has been pursuing a weapons program, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
By George Jahn