updated 4/1/2004 4:44:40 PM ET 2004-04-01T21:44:40

Indications of continued nuclear cover-ups by Iran are nudging previously reluctant U.S. allies closer to Washington’s view that Tehran should be penalized, European diplomats said Thursday.

The diplomats spoke to The Associated Press just days before chief U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei flies to Tehran. His mission could be jeopardized by a U.S. refusal to have him act as an intermediary with Iran.

The U.S. refusal appeared to be part of a strategy to wait and hope that new revelations in the coming weeks about Iran’s nuclear program by ElBaradei’s International Atomic Energy Agency would swing international sentiment behind Washington.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming disputed a U.S. assertion that ElBaradei’s offer was spurned, saying senior State Department officials “made note” of his efforts.

'Wasn't taken seriously'
ElBaradei’s one-day Tehran visit begins Tuesday. His offer to mediate “wasn’t taken seriously” during last month’s talks in Washington with President Bush, an American official said.

The U.S. official and others said Washington felt there was nothing to discuss as long as suspicions remain about Iran’s nuclear program, which America insists is geared toward making weapons.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions first came under international scrutiny last year, when the IAEA discovered that Tehran had not disclosed large-scale efforts to enrich uranium, which can be used to generate power or in nuclear warheads. Finds of traces of weapons-grade uranium and evidence of suspicious experiments heightened concerns.

Critics say that Iran has since reneged on commitments to win international trust — such as a promise to suspend enrichment — as IAEA inspectors have discovered new evidence of past experiments that could be used to develop weapons.

Iran argues that it is honoring its suspension and all other pledges. In an allusion to the United States, Pirooz Hosseini, the chief Iranian delegate to the IAEA, told AP that criticism of his country’s nuclear record was “propaganda ... coming from certain circles.”

Body of evidence
But Vienna-based diplomats said evidence continues to accumulate against Iran.

One cited intelligence from the United States and an unnamed country suggesting that within the past year, Iran had moved nuclear enrichment programs to smaller, easily hidden sites.

Another said IAEA inspectors had complained that they were forced to use Iranian equipment instead of their own cameras and devices to test for traces of enriched uranium at one site in February.

The Iranians “don’t want the photos leaving the country, so the Iranians will in certain cases ... keep the photos and the cameras,” one of the diplomats said.

Adding to the skepticism was Iran’s weekend announcement that it inaugurated a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, 155 miles south of Tehran, to process uranium ore into gas — a crucial step before uranium enrichment.

'Things are not going well'
Iran insists the move does not contravene its pledge to suspend enrichment. But Britain, France and Germany — who have blunted past U.S. attempts to come down hard on Iran — on Wednesday were critical. They said the Isfahan plant sent the wrong signal.

The Germans, French and British now think that “things are not going well,” said a diplomat.

Last year, the three secured Iran’s agreement to suspend enrichment and cooperate with the IAEA in exchange for promised access to western technology. They have stymied U.S. attempts to have Tehran brought before the U.N. Security Council for allegedly violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty.

The diplomats said willingness to believe Iran was fading. One said Iran’s “cat and mouse tactics” boosted sympathy for the U.S. position.

Even if no “smoking gun” is found, Iran’s past record could be reviewed and declared in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, another diplomat said. That would open the way for Security Council involvement.

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

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