updated 12/17/2003 9:16:24 PM ET 2003-12-18T02:16:24

Iran is opening its murky nuclear activities to international scrutiny, committing to intrusive inspections in an effort to challenge U.S. assertions that it is covertly developing nuclear weapons.

With the signing Thursday of an unprecedented agreement by an Iranian representative and International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Tehran sought to lay to rest lingering suspicions about its nuclear program.

The United States has called Iran part of the global “axis of evil,” accusing Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its atomic energy program is peaceful and geared purely toward generating electricity.

On Wednesday, Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said Tehran had nothing to hide.

“We have agreed to sign ... to give a strong response to accusations against us and demonstrate that our nuclear activities are peaceful,” Aghazadeh told reporters in Tehran.

Since October, Iran repeatedly has said it would sign the accord, but its failure to follow through had led to speculation that it might be stalling.

The agreement, tacked on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, requires Iran to submit to intrusive and unannounced U.N. inspections of its nuclear complexes and research facilities.

Iran agreed last month to open suspect sites that up to now have been off-limits, and to let IAEA inspectors conduct surprise checks to ensure the country is not trying to develop atomic weaponry as the United States alleges.

The IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors censured Iran in November for 18 years of secrecy in a resolution that warned Tehran to stay in line with international efforts to make sure the country has no nuclear weapons ambitions.

A warning
The resolution did not confront Iran with a direct threat of U.N. sanctions — a tougher approach that Washington had sought. However, it did warn Tehran that the IAEA would consider further action if “further serious Iranian failures” arise.

The wording implicitly warned Iran that the agency could report it to the Security Council, which has the power to impose economic or diplomatic sanctions.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington welcomed Iran’s signing of the pact, but cautioned that it was “only one step toward resolving the remaining open questions about Iran’s nuclear program.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, which Washington also suspects of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami further distanced his country from Iraq on Wednesday by supporting Bush’s call for the death penalty for Saddam Hussein and calling the former Iraqi leader “a disgusting tyrant.”

Under international pressure, Iran also has agreed to suspend its enrichment of uranium, which it says had been confined to non-weapons levels anyway.

IAEA probe
The IAEA has been working to determine the source of traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium on centrifuges and other equipment purchased abroad by Iran. The Iranian government contends the equipment already was contaminated when it acquired it.

Aghazadeh, the Iranian vice president, on Wednesday called on Britain, France and Germany to help secure the release of nuclear equipment that Iran has bought.

“Many countries, especially European states, are holding considerable equipment we’ve purchased and have taken no action so far to unblock them,” he said. Aghazadeh said the equipment included materials designed to ensure the safety of uranium conversion systems.

Iran has made significant progress in building a 40-megawatt nuclear reactor in the central city of Arak, but it will take four to five years before the country will be able to produce and store the heavy water required to operate the reactor, Aghazadeh said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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