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U.N. atomic agency chief chides Iran
Updated: 2005-03-01 09:00

The chief U.N. atomic watchdog chided Iran on Monday for delays in divulging key information about its nuclear program, saying the onus is on Tehran to overcome a "confidence deficit" caused by past cover-ups.

As Mohammed ElBaradei criticized Iran at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Bush administration suggested it was considering a major strategy shift — joining Europe in offering Tehran economic incentives to abandon its uranium enrichment program.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei delivers a press statement prior to the start of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors meeting, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2005, at Vienna's International Center. (AP Photo/Rudi Blaha)
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei delivers a press statement prior to the start of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors meeting, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2005, at Vienna's International Center. [AP]
Russia, meanwhile, sought to dismiss concerns that an Iranian nuclear reactor it built and will supply with fuel could be used to develop weapons. The accord signed Sunday is key to bringing Tehran's first reactor on line.

The deal was struck despite American objections, although U.S. officials said they could live with the pact because it was designed to eliminate the possibility of the Iranians misusing the fuel for weapons.

More worrisome for the United States and European nations are Iran's plans to enrich its own uranium.

While Iran says it wants the technology only to generate electricity, the process can also produce weapons-grade material for warheads, and Washington contends that is the main reason Tehran is interested in enrichment.

Iran has suspended work on enrichment pending negotiations with France, Germany and Britain but has repeatedly said the freeze is of short duration, despite European hopes that Tehran will commit to fully scrapping its program.

A two-year investigation by the U.N. nuclear agency established that Iran ran a clandestine nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, for nearly two decades.

In a new revelation of Iran's past covert activities, diplomats said over the weekend that as early as 1987 Iran had received a written offer from a nuclear black market network to set up the basics of an enrichment program. They said the Iranians turned over the list to the agency only recently.

Alluding to such delays in revealing illicit activities, ElBaradei spoke of Tehran's "confidence deficit" and said only better cooperation from the Iranians would "build the necessary confidence" to dispel concerns about their nuclear aspirations.

Iran and North Korea are considered the greatest nuclear threats and the board's meeting this week will focus on them. The agency has little leverage with North Korea, which quit the agency two years ago and claims to have atomic weapons.

The question of how to deal with Iran's nuclear program has brought two years of stormy sessions for the Vienna-based agency's board, but that tension was absent Monday.

During US President Bush's trip to Europe last week, leaders there urged him to join them in offering economic incentives such as eventual membership for Iran in the World Trade Organization. They argued a united front would be more effective than a continuing U.S.-Europe split over how to deal with Iran.

Signaling a possible U.S. shift, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that Bush "is thinking through some of the ideas that were discussed."

The European approach — offering a carrot to Tehran now along with the stick of harsher actions if necessary — had been flatly rejected by the administration ahead of the European trip.

Bush said Iran should not be rewarded, alleging past covert nuclear activities violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He also protested Iran's support for militant Arab groups in conflict with Israel, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

However, as the trip progressed, the president seemed to exhibit more flexibility. McClellan told reporters in Washington that Bush met with members of his national security team Friday to discuss the European proposals to offer incentives.

"The president spent a good portion of his time in Europe talking to our European friends about Iran and listening to their ideas. We all share the same goal of making sure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. The president was very much in a listening mode last week," McClellan said.

But while offering support for the diplomatic effort of Britain, France and Germany, the administration gave no indication Bush would go along with European urgings for the United States to join in their talks with Iran.

"The question of us sitting with Iran is not necessarily something that's going to contribute to moving this process forward," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

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