The outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday his probe of Iran's nuclear program is at "a dead end" and that trust in Tehran's credibility is shrinking after its belated revelation that it was secretly building a nuclear facility.
Mohamed ElBaradei's blunt criticism of the Islamic Republic — four days before he leaves office — was notable in representing a broad convergence with Washington's opinion, which for years was critical of the IAEA chief for what it perceived as his softness on Iran.
Iran also came in for censure from another quarter at the opening session of the IAEA's 35-nation board, with the introduction of a resolution taking Tehran to task on a broad range of issues linked to international concerns that it may be seeking to make nuclear weapons. Significantly, diplomats at the meeting said the resolution was endorsed not only by Western powers — the U.S., Britain, France and Germany — but also by Russia and China.
For strategic and economic reasons, Moscow and Beijing have sided with Tehran in the past. They have prevented several Western attempts to slap new U.N. sanctions on Iran for its nuclear defiance or succeeded in watering down their severity.
They did not formally endorse the last IAEA resolution critical of Iran in 2006. Their backing for the document at the Vienna meeting Thursday thus reflected broad international disenchantment with Tehran.
It also appeared to signal possible support for any new Western push for a fourth set of Security Council sanctions, should Tehran continue shunning international overtures meant to reach agreements that reduce concerns about its nuclear ambitions.
In Tehran, state TV quoted Iran's envoy to the U.N. agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, as saying, "The Western countries should not spoil the positive atmosphere. They should allow cooperation between Iran and the agency to continue its positive trend."
The IAEA resolution criticized Iran for defying a U.N. Security Council ban on uranium enrichment — the source of both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
It also censured it for secretly building a uranium enrichment facility and demanded that it immediately suspend further construction, noted that ElBaradei cannot confirm that Tehran's nuclear program is exclusively geared toward peaceful uses, and expressed "serious concern" that Iranian stonewalling of an IAEA probe means "the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" cannot be excluded.
Western diplomats said they expected about two-thirds of the board to support the resolution in a vote, likely Friday.
While the board cannot enforce any of its resolutions, they do get referred to the Security Council, giving any later move to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran additional weight.
'Issues of concern'
In his comments, ElBaradei touched on the same criticisms expressed in the resolution.
"There has been no movement on remaining issues of concern which need to be clarified for the agency to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program," he told the board session. "We have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us."
"Issues of concern" is the IAEA term for indications that Tehran has experimented with nuclear weapons programs, including missile-delivery systems and tests of explosives that could serve as nuclear-bomb detonators.
ElBaradei has emphasized the need for talks instead of threats in engaging Iran. He has criticized the U.S. for invading Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program, which has never been proven. That — and perceived softness on the Iran issue — has drawn criticism from the U.S. and its allies that he was overstepping his mandate.
But ElBaradei's comments Thursday left little doubt that he was most unhappy with Tehran.
"I am disappointed that Iran has not so far agreed" to a proposal involving removal of most of Iran's enriched stockpile, ElBaradei told the meeting.
Draft plan in limbo
The plan approved by the six world powers negotiating with Iran over the past few months would commit Tehran to ship out 70 percent of its enriched uranium for processing into fuel rods for its research reactor in Tehran. That would help allay international fears by removing most of the material that Iran could use to make a nuclear weapon.
It would take more than a year for Tehran to replace the enriched material, meaning it would not be able to make a weapon for at least that long.
Iran says it is enriching only to power a future network of nuclear reactors. But enrichment can also produce fissile warhead material. Iran continues enriching, despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to make it freeze that activity and has built an enriched stockpile that could arm two nuclear warheads.
Initially, Tehran appeared to favor the plan. But in recent weeks it has offered modifications that have one thing in common — its refusal to ship out most of its enriched stockpile. That effectively kills the plan, with the West refusing to accept anything else than an Iranian commitment to export the material.
In another reflection of a tougher Russian line, Moscow on Thursday urged Tehran to accept the uranium proposal and abide by other agreements reached at a meeting with six world powers last month. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Iran's ambassador to Moscow that such cooperation would "significantly move forward the process of restoring the international community's trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program," the ministry said.
Impatience with Iran has been fueled by Tehran's September revelation that it had secretly been building a new enrichment facility. In a possible pre-emptive move, Iran notified the IAEA in a confidential letter only days before the leaders of the U.S., Britain and France went public with the project.
Iran says it did not violate IAEA statutes by waiting with its notification. But ElBaradei has said Tehran was "outside the law" in not telling his agency about the facility much earlier. On Thursday, he said that Iran's late reporting on the facility reduced "confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction in Iran which have not been declared to the agency."
Ruediger Luedeking, Germany's chief IAEA representative, called the questions about the facility "a major issue which again gives rise to serious questions and concerns regarding the nature of Iran's nuclear program."
A perusal of IAEA records shows that Tehran's chief envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the agency's board last year that his country "has repeatedly declared that there is no undeclared nuclear material and activity in Iran" — at the time when construction of the secret nuclear facility was in full force.