Image: Conference hall
Hans Punz  /  AP
The International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday began its annual conference in Vienna, Austria.
updated 9/29/2008 2:46:58 PM ET 2008-09-29T18:46:58

A six-year probe has not ruled out the possibility that Iran may be running clandestine nuclear programs, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector said Monday, urging Iran to reassure the world by ending its secretive ways.

On the opening session Monday at the International Atomic Energy Agency's 145-nation conference, Europe also urged Tehran to fully cooperate with a U.N. probe that is trying to assess all of its past and present nuclear activities.

"The international community cannot accept the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons," the EU said in a statement.

Israel also took Iran to task for co-sponsoring Islamic attempts to label the Jewish state a nuclear danger to the Middle East.

"What moral standing poses sponsors of this agenda item, who do not recognize Israel's right to exist while criticizing Israel policies aiming at securing its very existence?" asked Israeli delegate Schaul Chorev.

He was alluding to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Iran, in turn, accused the U.S., Britain and France of breaking their nonproliferation commitments by giving Israel "full uninterrupted cooperation with, and assistance in, nuclear weapon technology."

Tehran's delegate, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, also condemned the "illegal and unjustified engagement of the United Nations Security Council" in pressuring his country to give up uranium enrichment — something he said would never happen.

Vying for IAEA board seat
Iran, along with ally Syria, figures directly at the Vienna conference because they are among four nations seeking their geographic region's nomination for a seat on the IAEA's decision-making 35-nation board.

Tehran is running to counteract a U.S. push to have Afghanistan or Kazakhstan elected over Syria, which is under IAEA investigation for allegedly hiding a secret nuclear program, including a nearly completed plutonium producing reactor destroyed last year by Israel.

If the regional group does not agree on a candidate, the conference will be asked to vote on which nation should take the board seat.

In his opening speech, chief U.N nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, focused on Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program and alleged past plans to develop the bomb.

The U.N. Security Council approved a resolution Saturday critical of Tehran's defiance on uranium enrichment, which can create both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.

"(Iran should) implement all transparency measures ... required to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program," ElBaradei said. "This will be good for Iran, good for the Middle East region and good for the world."

Appealing for more funds, he also warned that his organization is increasingly stretched in trying to carry out responsibilities that include nonproliferation and preventing terrorists from acquiring the bomb.

The annual meeting allows the agency's member countries to set policies that range from strengthening nonproliferation to carrying out medical and scientific research. But tensions between Islamic members and the West threaten to hamper decision-making this year.

The tradition of consensus has normally led all sides to bridge sometimes substantial differences and opt for compromise for most of the conference's 52-year history. A vote is unusual and considered a dent in the meeting's credibility.

But frustration among Muslim countries over Israel's refusal to put its nuclear program under international purview, and resistance from Israel to Muslim pressure on the issue, threatens to force a vote for the third year running.

Muslim IAEA members were expected to put forward a resolution urging all Mideast nations to refrain from testing or developing nuclear arms and urging nuclear weapons states "to refrain from any action" hindering a Mideast nuclear-free zone.

After losing this vote two consecutive years, Islamic nations are threatening to up the ante this year, warning they will call for a ballot on every item, no matter how uncontroversial, unless they get conference backing on the Israeli nuclear issue.

Arab members — backed by Iran — this year have again asked conference organizers to include an item on Israel — a move being protested by Israel.

Focusing on Israel by name "is substantially unwarranted and flawed," said a letter prepared for review by the conference from Israel Michaeli, the Jewish state's IAEA representative.

Sponsors of the item should instead "address the most pressing proliferation concerns in the Middle East," the letter said, an allusion to Iran's defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusal to stop uranium enrichment.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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