( LatWp ) - The head of the United Nations nuclear inspection agency warned for the first time Thursday that Iran probably can enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb in three to eight years, a judgment that sparked fresh concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, gave his assessment a day after a strongly worded IAEA report cautioned that Iran has reduced its cooperation with U.N. inspectors while sharply accelerating its uranium enrichment efforts.
ElBaradei's appraisal of Iran's bomb-making potential matches that of U.S. intelligence, but the timing suggested he is taking a harder line on Iran than previously. Speaking to reporters at a conference on nuclear disarmament in Luxembourg, he urged Iran and the West to find a way to restart negotiations as soon as possible to avoid a ``major confrontation.''
`` Iran needs to suspend its enrichment activities as a confidence-building measure but the international community should do its utmost to engage Iran in comprehensive dialogue,'' ElBaradei said.
In Washington, President Bush condemned the Iran regime for ignoring a U.N. Security Council deadline to freeze its enrichment effort by this week. Bush told a Rose Garden news conference that he has instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with European partners toward stronger international sanctions against Iran.
Bush added that he intends to personally lobby Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and China's leader, Hu Jintao.``The first thing that these leaders have got to understand is that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing for the world,'' Bush said. ``It's in their interests that we work collaboratively to continue to isolate that regime.''
The Security Council imposed limited trade and travel sanctions against Iran in December 2006, and stiffened them in March. Russia and China supported both measures, but they have expressed concerns that a further crackdown may impede a diplomatic solution.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Thursday that his nation will press ahead with enrichment despite the concerns of the outside world and an armada of U.S. warships conducting war games off its coast. Ahmadinejad, who has insisted that Iran seeks nuclear energy exclusively for civilian purposes, said the West wants to stop Iran from becoming a world power.
``If we stop for a while, they ( Iran's enemies) will achieve their goals,'' Ahmadinejad told a gathering of Republican Guard officers, according to Iranian television. ``The enemy wants Iran to surrender so it won't have any say in the world.'' Despite four years of inspections, the IAEA has been unable to guarantee that Iran's enrichment effort is only for peaceful purposes. The same equipment can produce fuel for civilian reactors or for nuclear weapons.
According to the IAEA's most recent report, Iran has installed more than 1,600 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and is building more than 500 others, at its main nuclear facility at Natanz. The equipment is still being tested, however, and so far has produced insignificant quantities of enriched uranium.
Iran has refused in recent months to allow U.N. inspectors to visit a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak and has stopped providing critical design information about the centrifuges and other equipment. As a result, knowledge of Iran's nuclear program is shrinking, the report warned.
Formal negotiations aimed at convincing Iran to suspend its program broke down last year. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is expected to meet Iran's top nuclear negotiator in coming weeks in an effort aimed at reviving the talks.
ElBaradei angered Bush administration officials last week when he told reporters that the effort to persuade Iran to scrap its program before it produces nuclear fuel have been ``overtaken by events'' because the Iranians ``pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich.''
Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Vienna, met privately with ElBaradei to deliver an official diplomatic complaint about his comments. British and French diplomats plan to lodge a similar complaint on Friday, according to a senior U.N. official.