Iran freezes U.N. nuclear inspections to protest critical IAEA

Sunday, March 14, 2004

VIENNA, Austria -- Iran froze a probe of its nuclear program indefinitely Saturday, spurning the U.N. atomic agency's governing body over a resolution that censured Tehran for hiding suspicious activities.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, described the resolution passed earlier Saturday as "unfair and deceitful." He said International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were due to arrive in Tehran on Saturday, would not be allowed in.

"We will not allow them to come until Iran sets a new date for their visit," Rowhani told reporters in Iran's capital, Tehran.

Iran signed an agreement last year empowering U.N. experts to inspect its nuclear facilities at any time and without notice. On Friday, Iran suspended inspections until April, saying they conflicted with next week's celebration of the Iranian New Year.

Rowhani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said Saturday the freeze on inspections was "a protest by Iran in reaction to the passage of the resolution."

Iran, which insists its nuclear intentions are peaceful, threatened repeatedly over the past few days to reduce cooperation with the IAEA if its 35-nation board of governors came down hard on the Islamic republic.

The resolution praises Iran's increased openness to inspections but "deplores" recent discoveries of uranium enrichment equipment and other suspicious activities Tehran had not revealed.

Chief U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei expressed confidence that his experts would soon be allowed into Iran.

"I'm pretty confident that Iran will understand that we need to go within the time scheduled, and the decision to delay the inspection will be reviewed and reversed within the next couple of days," he told reporters.

Asked when inspectors might visit again, Rowhani replied: "It could be less than six weeks. It could be more than six weeks. We have not set a date."

Brill:Attempt to gain time

Kenneth Brill, the chief U.S. delegate to the meeting, condemned the move.

"This is a measure of their full cooperation -- their postponing the very thing that they are called on to do by their obligations," he told reporters.

Brill said he suspected the freeze was an attempt by Iran to gain time and hide covert activities before allowing agency inspectors access to new sites.

Brill accused Iran of "continuing to pursue a policy of denial, deception and delay."

"Is it possible that, even as we meet, squads of Iranian technicians are working" at still-undeclared nuclear sites to "tile over, paint over, bury, burn or cart away incriminating evidence, so that those sanitized locations can finally be identified to the agency as new evidence of Iran's full cooperation and transparency?" he told the board of governors earlier.

A senior U.S. State Department official pointed to a paragraph in the resolution that says both Libya and Iran were supplied by the same nuclear black market and suggested that -- like Libya -- Iran could have bought plans for a warhead.

"The board served a search warrant on the Iranians that we're coming after your secret weapons program," he said on condition of anonymity.

Iran disputes U.S. assertions it wants to make nuclear arms, asserting that its activities are strictly geared to generating power.

Nonaligned members of the IAEA had tried to tone down the language of the resolution, while Western powers -- foremost the United States -- wanted to send Iran a harsh warning.

Striking a balance, the 13-nation nonaligned group dropped most of its objections but pushed through wording that effectively defers the threat of Security Council action against Iran until the board meets again in June.

Still, much of the language was critical, reflecting shared concerns by most board members about Iran's nuclear activities and its uneven record of cooperation with the IAEA.

The resolution, made available to The Associated Press, notes "with serious concern" that the board still does not have "the complete and final picture of Iran's past and present nuclear program," needed by the IAEA to dispel suspicions Iran had a weapons agenda.

Unlike an earlier draft pushed by the United States and its allies, the resolution made no mention of military involvement in Iran's nuclear program. Iran's military acknowledged this week it built uranium enrichment centrifuges but said they were for civilian use.

Iran's move to freeze inspections would be a huge obstacle to the agency's efforts to deliver a judgment by June on the nature of Tehran's nuclear past and present.

An IAEA report last month accused Iran of hiding evidence of nuclear experiments and noted the discovery of traces of radioactive polonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.

The report also expressed concern about the discovery of a previously undisclosed advanced P-2 centrifuge system for enriching uranium.

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