Iran began a crucial round of talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday to clarify its nuclear activity amid disagreement between the IAEA chief and the West over judging Tehran's intentions
IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said on Sunday there was still no evidence Iran was trying to make atom bombs rather than generate more electricity as it says. France and the United States said on Monday all signs pointed to a weapons agenda.
After stonewalling the IAEA for years, Iran pledged to the U.N. nuclear watchdog in August to answer questions about past secret aspects of its program before the end of 2007 in hopes of warding off a third, harsher batch of U.N. sanctions.
The IAEA has withheld comment on whether Iran is resolving transparency issues one by one as promised, pending a report due in mid-November. But Iranian news agencies quoted a senior IAEA official on Monday as saying cooperation was "good."
"We have done many things, but much work remains and I hope we can do that," the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen as saying at Tehran airport before talks got under way.
Mohammad Saeedi of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation voiced hope negotiators in this session could resolve questions about its development of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, the main subject in the last two rounds of talks.
Iran uses a 1970s vintage of centrifuge, called P-1s, prone to break down if spun at high speed for long periods. It is researching an advanced P-2 model able to refine uranium faster, using less energy, at sites off limits to IAEA inspectors.
The talks were expected to run through Wednesday.
The IAEA says answers to the questions, including alleged experiments linking uranium processing and missile warhead designs yet to be addressed, would help it judge whether Iran's activity is wholly peaceful or not.
ElBaradei, speaking at the United Nations on Monday, said Iran's agreement to hold the talks was "an important step in the right direction," but that Tehran's full cooperation was key.
However U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad said there was no sign Iran was going to suspend uranium enrichment and that Washington was drafting a new U.N. resolution on sanctions to increase pressure on Tehran.
The United States and France took issue with ElBaradei's remark on Sunday that the IAEA had found no proof Iran was building bombs and remained years away from such capability, and urging anyone to come forward with evidence showing otherwise.
France said Iran's curbs on IAEA inspections made no sense if its program was geared only for civilian energy.
Washington said Iran's efforts to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel itself, rather than import refined uranium more cheaply, indicated it really wanted nuclear weapons.
"This is a country that is enriching and reprocessing uranium, and the reason that one does that is to lead towards a nuclear weapon," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
"Our information, which is backed up by other countries, is contrary (to ElBaradei's comments)," French Defence Minister Herve Morin told reporters in Abu Dhabi, without elaborating on what information France had.
"If ... ElBaradei is right then there is no reason that Iran stops ElBaradei and the IAEA from carrying out inspections."
IAEA inspectors say they have regular access to declared Iranian nuclear sites. But in retaliation to limited sanctions, Iran last year stopped wide-ranging checks that would help inspectors ascertain no undeclared activity is going on.
Iran rejects Western accusations of a covert quest for nuclear bombs. Ex-chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who remains an influential figure, has said new bilateral U.S. sanctions could make Tehran rethink its relations with the IAEA.
U.S. and other Western powers pushing for broader world sanctions say the Iran-IAEA process fails to address the core U.N. Security Council demand that Iran halt sensitive enrichment activity they say could be diverted into producing bombs.
ElBaradei reports on the transparency talks to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors in mid-November. If Iran has not answered sensitive questions by then, Western powers say they will move to have the Council adopt more far-reaching sanctions. ( Reuters )