TEHRAN // The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, has no concrete evidence of an ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons programme, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, said in Tehran yesterday after announcing Iran had agreed to allow inspectors to visit Iran's recently disclosed second uranium enrichment facility this month.
Answering a question regarding a story published in The New York Times on Saturday that quotes a source saying an internal IAEA report mentions that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, Mr ElBaradei said the existence of such a document was "totally baseless". The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but the Islamic republic insists it needs the nuclear technology to generate power to meet domestic demand.
The newspaper said the IAEA report presents evidence that Iran has done extensive research and testing on how to fashion the components of a weapon and that the document, titled Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Programme, draws a picture of a complex programme run by Iran's defence ministry "aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system", which can strike the Middle East and parts of Europe.
The Times said that although the report was the judgment of the nuclear agency's senior staff, a battle has erupted in recent months over whether to make it public between Mr ElBaradei, his own staff and against foreign governments wanting to increase pressure on Iran. The report's existence has been rumoured for months, the Times reported. The Associated Press, saying it had seen a copy, reported part of it in September. On Friday, excerpts appeared on the website of the Institute for Science and International Security, run by David Albright, a nuclear expert.
Mr ElBaradei has long been reluctant to adopt a confrontational strategy with Iran. At yesterday's press conference, he said: "I continue to say today that the agency has no concrete proof that there is an ongoing weapons programme in Iran. There are allegations that Iran has conducted weaponisation studies. However, these are issues that we are still looking into - We do not have any information that any component of nuclear weapon has been manufactured. We are concerned, but we are in no way panicking about Iran's nuclear programme. However, we need to work with Iran to clarify these issues."
Mr ElBaradei wound up his two-day visit to Tehran after meeting Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, as well as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was quoted by the Iranian News Agency as saying: "Because of good co-operation between Iran and the agency, important issues were resolved and today there is no ambiguous issue left between Iran and the agency." Mr ElBaradei also said the UN monitor and Iran have agreed that the agency's inspectors will visit the newly revealed Fordu enrichment facility near Qom, about 160km south-west of Tehran, on October 25.
"It is important for us to send our inspectors to assure ourselves that this facility is for peaceful purposes," he said. He criticised Iran for failing to announce the existence of the enrichment facility upon the beginning of its construction as stipulated by the IAEA's additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which obliges members to notify the UN agency as soon as it starts designing a nuclear facility.
Iran announced the existence of the new facility, inside a mountain in an area called Fordu, in a letter to the IAEA on September 21, a few days before talks with officials of the five permanent members of the UN Security council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China - plus Germany, collectively known as P5-plus-one, in Geneva. Iran says it has not violated any IAEA regulations, based on the argument that the country is no longer adhering to the additional protocol and that it had announced the existence of the facility voluntarily a year before it was required to do so according to the provisions of a 1977 agreement. The deal requires countries to announce the existence of an enrichment facility six months before the introduction of nuclear matter into its centrifuges.
The IAEA disagrees with Iran's interpretation of the regulations regarding the announcement of construction of the Fordu facility, Mr ElBaradei said, declaring that a government cannot unilaterally abandon an agreement such as the additional protocol. The IAEA chief said at the press conference that Iran's nuclear issues could be solved through talks and asked Iran to continue making its programme more transparent.
James Jones, the national security adviser to the US president, Barack Obama, said yesterday on CNN's State of the Union that "for now, things are moving in the right direction". In March, a few months after being sworn into office, Mr Obama had called for "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" on the nuclear issue with Iran. In Tehran, Mr ElBaradei said at the press conference that US, French, Russian and Iranian officials as well as those of the IAEA official were to meet on October 19 to discuss the possibility of enrichment of Iran's processed uranium to a higher grade abroad.
Iran currently produces low enriched uranium with a 3.5 to five per cent concentration in its Natanz enrichment facility. It needs enriched uranium to the level of 19.5 per cent for the production of isotopes for radiomedical use by its research reactor in Tehran. "We will have a meeting to discuss the technical details and hopefully we will hammer out an agreement as early as possible," said Mr ElBaradei, whose third term in office will end on November 30, when he will hand over his duties to Yukio Amano, Japan's envoy to the UN bodies in Geneva.
"Iran has mastered enrichment technology. Iran has a fuel cycle, has research facility and will have a nuclear plant. But there are still some questions about Iran's intentions and thus the inspections are ongoing," Mr ElBaradei said. Western officials have said Iran agreed "in principle" to ship low-grade uranium to Russia for further enrichment at the meeting with officials of the P5-plus-one countries in Geneva on Thursday.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Jalili, however, told reporters on Friday that Iran had informed IAEA of its need for highly enriched uranium about three months ago and the plan had not been part of the issues discussed or agreed during the Geneva talks, which he said had been centred around the package Iran presented to the representatives of P5-plus-one countries in Tehran last month. Iran's agreement with shipping its uranium supplies for enrichment abroad was welcomed by Mr Obama on Thursday who called that a step towards confidence building but threatened to increase pressure on Iran if it failed to take quick action.
"Mr Obama had previously said that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us".
email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse