The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency was unable to confirm that Iran had completely suspended its nuclear programs yesterday, as it had committed to doing, because the Islamic republic said it wanted to continue working with some of its equipment.
Iran's request to operate 20 centrifuges for research and development was rejected by European diplomats, who said such an arrangement would spell the end for a deal Tehran had just signed promising to suspend all of its nuclear work.
Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency director general, and Chairwoman Ingrid Hall talk before a meeting on Iran's nuclear program.
(Rudi Blaha -- AP)
"The agreement still looks good," one European diplomat said. "But their latest request is unacceptable to us and could obviously be a deal-breaker," the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
It marked the third time in less than 10 days that Iran sought to alter its deal with France, Britain and Germany or to take advantage of ambiguities in the language of the agreement not foreseen by the European trio.
The Iranian tactics have irked the Europeans, who have worked hard to convince Washington and others that diplomacy can quell nuclear threats.
The Bush administration believes that Iran should be reported to the U.N. Security Council for 18 years of secret nuclear efforts that could be used to build an atomic bomb. But Washington's drive was halted 10 days ago when Iran entered into an agreement with Europe to freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for assurances it would not be reported to the council.
Under the terms of their accord, Iran's suspension was to be verified yesterday by the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei. Representatives of the four countries were then expected to begin negotiations for a permanent end to Iran's nuclear programs in exchange for lucrative trade deals with Europe.
ElBaradei told the 35 members of the agency's board, which began two days of meetings yesterday, that he was "still in discussion with the Iranian authorities on this request for exemption" and that he expected the issue to be resolved by today.
Board members have been negotiating a statement on Iran's case that was supposed to welcome the new commitments and make it clear that any violation of the deal could lead to Security Council action against Iran.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said the text was unacceptable and needed to be revised. "This resolution is not a good resolution," Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying.
Much of the wrangling is focusing on two U.S. proposals for the document: a request for more aggressive IAEA inspections in Iran and an unambiguous threat to send Iran directly to the Security Council if it breaks any part of its deal with the Europeans.
U.S. and European diplomats said the United States was unlikely to succeed with either request. U.S. officials want the resolution to ask Iran to provide the kind of "unrestricted access" U.N. inspectors had in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
"It's looking like the most the board is willing to go for is a reference to 'access as needed' so the IAEA can make sure over time that Iran is keeping its word," one U.S. official said.
Iran is under no legal obligation to accept the board's request, but doing so would be viewed by the board as a measure of good faith. The Europeans, who have committed to keeping Iran out of the Security Council as long as Iran's suspension holds, do not think automatic trigger language will be acceptable to Iran or many of the board members.
Iran, rich in oil and natural gas, insists its work is geared toward the development of a nuclear energy source. But the scale of its programs and the years of secret work Iran conducted have fueled administration beliefs that it has a covert weapons program.
The IAEA has been investigating Iran for two years and has found numerous sites, equipment and work that should have been reported to the agency as part of Iran's obligations to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But in a report to the board that was discussed yesterday in Vienna, ElBaradei made it clear that his inspectors have not found any evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Two outstanding issues surrounding equipment Iran bought on a nuclear black market may become clearer, ElBaradei said, now that Pakistan has agreed to allow his inspectors limited access to facilities there.
For the past two years, Pakistan has rejected IAEA requests for access to determine whether equipment from Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was tainted with bomb-grade uranium before it was shipped to Iran, as Iranian officials have claimed. If IAEA inspectors can confirm Iran's version, it will go a long way toward removing suspicions that Tehran was making highly enriched uranium, a violation that would automatically be reported to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions or an oil embargo.