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Iran to sign protocol on snap UN nuclear checks
( 2003-12-18 11:32) (Agencies)

Tehran said it would sign a protocol on Thursday giving the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog the right to conduct snap nuclear inspections across Iran, a gesture one Western diplomat described as "long overdue."

Iran's promise to sign the Additional Protocol to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) comes nearly 18 months after an exiled Iranian opposition group sparked a crisis by saying Tehran was hiding several massive nuclear facilities from the U.N. The allegations were later confirmed as true.

"We have agreed to sign the protocol to prove our activities are peaceful," Iranian Vice-President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday.

The signing ceremony is due to take place at the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna at 9 a.m. EST. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and Tehran's outgoing representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, are expected to sign the document, diplomats told Reuters.

The United States accuses Iran of using its atomic energy program as a smokescreen for the development of nuclear arms, but Iran has repeatedly denied this.

The protocol sparked heated debate in Iran earlier this year, with hard-liners saying the short-notice inspections it permits were tantamount to allowing spies into the country.

But, under mounting international pressure, Iran said in October it would sign up for the tougher inspection regime, suspend uranium enrichment and provide full details of nuclear activities dating back to the 1980s.

"This is a long overdue but positive step forward," a Western diplomat told Reuters about the signing ceremony.

The IAEA criticized Tehran last month for an 18-year cover-up of potentially arms-related nuclear research, warning the Iranians any further breaches could see their case taken to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed Iran's decision to sign but also voiced caution.

"The signature is only one step toward resolving the remaining open questions about Iran's nuclear program and toward increasing international confidence that (it) will be limited to peaceful activities," he told reporters.

The protocol will give the IAEA much broader inspection powers than it has under Iran's NPT Safeguards Agreement. But one analyst warned the protocol would not prevent Iran from developing the capacity to manufacture nuclear arms in case it ever wanted to "break out" of the NPT and build an atomic bomb.

"Even with the Additional Protocol, the IAEA is going to need member states to provide intelligence," Gary Samore, senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told Reuters. "If governments have information that Iran has not really come clean, then now is the time to give it to the IAEA."

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