Agency draws fire for saying it found no evidence of nukes

Friday, November 14, 2003

VIENNA, Austria -- The U.N. atomic agency is coming under fire for saying it has no evidence that Tehran tried to make nuclear weapons.

In a report detailing two decades of covert Iranian nuclear activity, the agency said Iran was guilty of numerous secret experiments, including uranium enrichment and the production of small amounts of plutonium that effectively put the nation in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But the document, presented this week to the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors, also praised Tehran for cooperation and openness. It said the agency had found "no evidence" of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. That stance contradicts the American view that Tehran is not only trying to make such arms but could be just years away from putting nuclear warheads on missiles capable of reaching Israel.

In Washington, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said Wednesday the IAEA finding was "simply impossible to believe."

But in Iran officials say it should dispel suspicions their country had a nuclear weapons agenda.

"This proves our claim and removes the possibility for some powers to misuse the situation against us," Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said.

The board will be looking closely at the report, written by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, when it meets on Nov. 20. Any finding that Iran violated the nuclear treaty brings with it Security Council involvement.

The Council can impose sanctions as its ultimate weapon. At the least, it could be asked to note concerns about Iran's nuclear program but take no action while the agency continues to probe the country's activities.

The Bush administration wants the IAEA board to take a strong and unified stance, but there is concern now that it may not even refer the matter to the Security Council. One official in Washington, who declined to be identified, said Iran had succeeded in confusing the U.N. agency with its partial disclosures.

Some Vienna-based diplomats from other countries said they understood U.S. concerns.

"Factually, there is no evidence, no smoking gun," said one senior diplomat who follows the Iran issue and who declined to be identified. "But there's a lot of circumstantial evidence, including 18 years spent in the pursuit of fissile material."

The report outlines nearly two decades of illicit activity disclosed by Iran only recently and under international pressure.

In the last few weeks, Iran has swung from belligerent denial of wrongdoing to acknowledging it made "mistakes" by failing to keep the agency abreast of its nuclear programs.

While still maintaining it only wants to generate nuclear power, it has delivered what it says is complete information about past suspect activities, suspended uranium enrichment -- a key board demand -- and agreed to open its nuclear programs to closer international scrutiny, including unannounced inspections.

The strategy appears to be working. Another diplomat suggested some Western board members normally supportive of Washington did not share America's rejection of the "no evidence" clause.

He described ElBaradei's view that there is no direct proof Iran tried to make nuclear weapons as "an interpretation that has a lot going for it."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected to discuss the issue with Secretary of State Colin Powell during a meeting Thursday in Washington. On Wednesday, Straw pointed to Iran's recent cooperation with the IAEA, saying "we should be reacting calmly" to the report.

In Stockholm, former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said the United States has a history of jumping to conclusions, noting the war in Iraq was based on U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"Experience has shown that that was not so. So one has to be cautious," said Blix, ElBaradei's predecessor as IAEA head.

Asked for comment, agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said the IAEA was "standing by the report." He refused to elaborate on the leaked but formally still confidential document ahead of the board meeting next week.

One diplomat familiar with the agency said there was some debate by ElBaradei's team on whether to include the "no evidence" finding and the decision was made on the basis of "we're going to be asked anyway."

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