UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 1 -- The chief of the United Nations' nuclear agency appealed to Iran Monday to suspend its nuclear activities and expressed concern that efforts to halt the spread of atomic weapons have been undercut by North Korea's refusal to allow inspections and by a black market in nuclear materials.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, offered a sobering assessment of nonproliferation efforts in an annual address to the 191-member General Assembly of the United Nations. Speaking one day after Iran's parliament voted to affirm the country's right to enrich uranium, ElBaradei urged Iran "to build confidence" by suspending those activities as part of a "comprehensive settlement" to end a nuclear standoff.
France, Britain and Germany offered Iran a deal last month to end its enrichment work in exchange for political and economic incentives, including a guarantee that Iran would not be referred to the Security Council, where the United States could press for sanctions. U.S. diplomats have said they expect negotiations between Iran and the three European countries to result in a deal. But they expressed concern that any agreement could be written in a way that gives the Islamic state wiggle room to continue nuclear experiments that could enhance its bombmaking capabilities.
ElBaradei made only an indirect reference on Monday to the loss of nuclear-related equipment in Iraq, including the disappearance of 377 tons of high explosives that became a central issue in the final week of the U.S. presidential campaign. He defended the agency's prewar record in Iraq, saying that U.N. inspections had succeeded and that he had "been validated" in concluding that Saddam Hussein had not revived his nuclear weapons program.
"The Iraq experience demonstrated that inspections -- while requiring time and patience -- can be effective when the country under inspection is providing less than active cooperation," ElBaradei said.
ElBaradei's address came in an eventful year in which Libya foreswore its nuclear arms program, a Pakistan-based marketplace in nuclear weapons components was unmasked, and North Korea continued for a second year to pursue its nuclear program beyond the view of international monitors.
The U.N. nuclear chief said he cannot "provide any level of assurance" that Pyongyang is not diverting nuclear material to a weapons program. "North Korea continues to pose a serious challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation regime," he said, noting that IAEA inspectors have been barred from the country since 2002.
ElBaradei cited Libya as a great success story, since Moammar Gaddafi agreed to give up his government's nuclear weapons program. ElBaradei cautioned that further investigation is required to verify how completely Libya disclosed its nuclear activities.
On Iran, ElBaradei provided a mixed review of that country's actions. He described Tehran's "failure over an extended period of time to meet many of its obligations" to the nuclear agency, but noted that its cooperation "has improved appreciably." Still, he said, Iran's response to information requests in some cases "has continued to be slow."
"Perhaps the most disturbing lesson to emerge from our work in Iran and Libya is the existence of an extensive illicit market for the supply of nuclear items, which clearly thrived on demand," he said, referring to trade in nuclear equipment by a network headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
There have been heightened tensions in the past year between ElBaradei and the Bush administration, which opposes the former Egyptian diplomat's bid for a third term in June. Administration opposition to ElBaradei has grown steadily since the run-up to the Iraq war, when he pronounced, in defiance of the White House, that Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program.
Since the war, the administration has kept the agency from inspecting materials in Iraq, and IAEA officials say the administration has refused to respond to its concerns over missing equipment there.
Months before ElBaradei announced he would seek a third term, the State Department began floating names of possible replacements for him. They included Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, two Japanese diplomats and a South Korean official whose name was dropped from the list after Seoul admitted that scientists had conducted covert nuclear experiments.
ElBaradei announced in September that he will stay on if the IAEA board wants him to. "I was asked by just about everybody to stay because there are a lot of issues that are still open and important: Iraq, Iran, the threat of proliferation," he said in an interview Friday. "I made it clear that I am happy to continue public service, which is a personal sacrifice, but I'm happy to improve my golf handicap."
ElBaradei has encouraged Iran and the three European countries to strike a deal before the IAEA Board of Governors meets on Nov. 27 to consider whether to refer Iran's case to the Security Council.