VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said on Monday the agency was in “stalemate” with Iran on key issues of trust but that Israeli and French suggestions he was hiding evidence of alleged Iranian atom bomb work were baseless.
The comments by Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), could be timely for Western powers who will strive in coming weeks to win over Russia and China to far harsher sanctions against Iran.
An August 28 IAEA report said Iran had granted the agency’s demand for tighter monitoring of its Natanz nuclear fuel production site and restored some IAEA access to a heavy-water reactor site of proliferation concern.
But it also said Iran had increased its number of installed centrifuge machines by 1,000 to 8,300, boosting potential enrichment capacity, and was still blocking an IAEA inquiry into allegations it has tried to “weaponise” the enrichment process.
Except for Iran’s two new gestures of cooperation, “On all ... issues relevant to Iran’s nuclear programme, there is stalemate,” ElBaradei said in remarks opening a quarterly meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors.
He referred to the blocked weaponisation inquiry, Iran’s refusal to suspend enrichment as demanded by the U.N. Security Council, and its failure to adopt an IAEA protocol permitting inspections ranging beyond declared nuclear sites.
The West suspects Iran is pursuing the means to produce atomic bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear programme. Iran says it wants only electricity from uranium enrichment.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on Monday Iran would pursue uranium enrichment, regardless of the risk of more punitive sanctions.
The IAEA report described as compelling Western intelligence material implying Tehran secretly combined projects to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a missile cone in a way that would fit a nuclear warhead.
ElBaradei said it was up to Iran to disprove the intelligence by granting IAEA access to documentation, sites and nuclear officials in question, instead of just dismissing the intelligence as fabricated.
But he denied Israeli and French suggestions of an IAEA cover-up.
“I am dismayed by the allegations of some member states, which have been fed to the media, that information has been withheld from the Board. These allegations are politically motivated and totally baseless,” he said.
“Such attempts to influence the work of the (IAEA’s non-proliferation inspectorate) and undermine its independence and objectivity are in violation of ... the IAEA Statute and should therefore cease forthwith.”
Iran has repeatedly declared the entire matter “closed.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the IAEA report did not reflect all the agency knows about Iran’s “efforts to continue to pursue its military (nuclear) programme.”
The Jewish state, which is believed to harbour the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, is Iran’s arch-foe. Israel has been lobbying six world powers to intensify efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear activity — by crippling sanctions or even last-resort war.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, one of the six powers, said last week the IAEA had yet to publish annexes of findings on Iran he said were important to pinpointing suspected weaponisation research.
A senior official close to the IAEA said the agency had further information on the matter, and was getting more almost daily, but this had not been put through a detailed process of checks for substance, and so it has not been released.
“(ElBaradei) is worried about a deja vu, pre-Iraq war situation arising whereby some countries whip up concern about information that has not passed tests of credibility and the IAEA ends up getting blamed for military action,” said a second senior official close to the Vienna-based watchdog.
U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003 based on what proved to be false intelligence about a mass-destruction weapons programme. Evidence to the contrary given by ElBaradei to the U.N. Security Council was disregarded.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Vienna and Julien Toyer in Stockholm; Editing by Diana Abdallah