VIENNA, Feb. 15 -- The head of the U.N. agency responsible for investigating Iran's nuclear program said Tuesday that there had been no discoveries in the last six months to substantiate claims that the Islamic state is secretly working toward building a nuclear bomb.
In a wide-ranging interview with four U.S. newspapers, Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency also described White House policies on Iran and North Korea as inconsistent. Without greater U.S. participation in diplomacy, ElBaradei said, confrontation could increase.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said recent evidence does not substantiate claims that Iran is working toward a nuclear bomb.
"North Korea and Iran are still the two 800-pound gorillas in the room and not much is happening," he said in his office overlooking Vienna.
U.S. officials have attended joint meetings with the North Koreans and envoys from four other countries, but the talks have produced little and have been on hold for almost eight months. The White House has said repeatedly that it wants those talks to resume but recently ruled out a similar arrangement with Iran, arguing that it didn't want to give legitimacy to the country's ruling clerics.
"I don't see talking to a regime as legitimization," ElBaradei said. "They talk to North Korea, and I don't think that legitimizes the North Korean regime."
He praised France, Britain and Germany for entering into negotiations with Iran that have led to the suspension of its nuclear activities, such as uranium enrichment, that could be used in a weapons program. "If I look at the big picture," he said, "there is no enrichment in Iran, and this is quite satisfactory, and I hope it keeps this way until we reach an agreement" for a permanent stop.
ElBaradei, 62, an international lawyer and Egyptian diplomat, has been at odds with the Bush administration since he challenged U.S. intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
His caution on Iran has led some Bush administration officials to suggest he is more interested in blocking U.S. policy than in stopping Iran. The White House wants him to step down when he finishes his second term this summer and has tried to find a candidate willing to challenge him.
But a majority of countries on the IAEA board consider ElBaradei's leadership on Iran helpful and want him to take a third term.
Despite the tensions with Washington, ElBaradei said professional relations with U.S. officials have been good. "I would hope we would continue to cooperate no matter what," he said. ElBaradei was joined in the interview by top aides from the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada.
During a two-year investigation, IAEA inspectors uncovered an 18-year-old nuclear program in Iran and chastised the country for failing to report the work and disclose its suppliers to the agency, as required under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Bush administration contends the program is designed to build nuclear weapons, but Iran says the goal is nuclear energy that will someday substitute for its oil and gas reserves.
ElBaradei's last report on the status of the investigation in November said that Iran's cooperation had improved steadily and that most outstanding issues had been resolved.
The investigation is continuing, and IAEA inspectors are awaiting results from samples taken recently at an Iranian military facility.
ElBaradei said Tuesday that the past six months have uncovered very little new information. "On Iran, there really hasn't been much development, neither as a result of our inspections or as a result of intelligence." U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not dispute that comment, but emphasized that the investigation was incomplete.