updated 8/30/2007 7:45:07 AM ET 2007-08-30T11:45:07

The U.N. nuclear agency on Thursday called Iran’s cooperation with its investigation of past suspicious atomic activities “a significant step forward,” in a report expected to hamper U.S.-led efforts for new sanctions on Tehran.

At the same time, the report confirmed that Iran continued to expand its uranium enrichment program, reflecting the Islamic republic’s defiance of the U.N. Security Council. Still, U.N. officials said, both enrichment and the building of a plutonium-producing reactor was continuing more slowly than expected.

IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen, who brokered the cooperation deal with Iranian officials, highlighted the importance of the agreement, noting that Tehran’s past refusal to answer the agency’s questions triggered Security Council sanctions in the first place.

But he cautioned that Iran still needed to fully implement its commitments, telling reporters that “the key is that Iran ... provides the information that we need” in a time frame that foresees clarity for the first time about Iran’s past suspicious activities by year’s end.

Details of report already publicized
Drawn up by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, much of the report focused on the already publicized action plan finalized just a few weeks ago between the agency and Iran, restating progress in some areas and agreed on time frames for Iran to respond to additional questions.

In that plan, Iran agreed to come up with information sought by agency experts on past secret aspects of its enrichment program by November.

If that, and all other deadlines are adhered to and Iran provides all the information sought, the agency should be able to close the file on its more than four-year probe of Tehran’s past nuclear activities by year’s end, a senior U.N. official told The Associated Press.

He and other U.N. officials — all demanding anonymity because they were not authorized to comment to media — declined comment, however, whether a clean bill that banishes suspicions about Iran’s former nuclear programs and experiments would be enough to stop the threat of new U.N. sanctions.

Two such sets of penalties have been imposed since last year, and the United States and its closest allies said more are needed because of Tehran’s defiance of council demands that it mothball its uranium enrichment program and stop building a plutonium-producing reactor. Both can create the product that can serve as the fissile component of nuclear warheads.

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