IAEA Says Iran Deal Is Still Feasible

ReutersLavrov meeting his Canadian counterpart in Ottawa while en route to the U.S.
VIENNA — The head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency said Monday that a deal on Iran's suspect nuclear program could be only a few days away, making UN Security Council action unneeded.

International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei's optimism was believed to be linked to a confidential Russian proposal to allow Iran to enrich some uranium domestically, diplomats said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

"I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached," ElBaradei told reporters, without elaborating.

However the plan — which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov planned to discuss with officials in Washington later Monday — was expected to meet strong U.S. resistance over fears it could be misused to make nuclear weapons.

The Russian proposal would allow Tehran to conduct small-scale uranium enrichment, and ask the IAEA to set the parameters of such activity to minimize the chances of abuse.

Moscow, with the support of the United States and other countries, has offered to enrich Iran's uranium in Russia — to ensure greater oversight — but Iran, insisting its goals are peaceful, has said it should be free to carry out some enrichment domestically.

The Russian proposal was driving a wedge into what had been a relatively united front on uranium enrichment, with Germany cautiously supportive and France and Britain opposed and backing the United States.

The three European nations broke off negotiations with Iran last year after it resumed enrichment-related activities, which can make both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Since then, they, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan have been at the forefront of efforts to have the UN Security Council take up the Iran issue.

The diplomats said negotiations on trying to bridge differences were continuing Monday afternoon on the sidelines of a 35-nation board meeting of the IAEA, which began Monday and would focus on Iran later in the week.

The meeting is scheduled to hear a report by ElBaradei focusing on Iran's nuclear program, including its decision to deny information requested by UN inspectors.

"We have not seen indication of diversion of … material to nuclear weapons or other explosive devices," ElBaradei told reporters Monday. "However, there are still a number of important uncertainties that need to be clarified. Unfortunately, the picture is not very clear as to the scope of the program and as to the nature of the program," he said, alluding to past experiments and activities that could be used to develop nuclear arms.

The last board meeting already had sent the complete Iran file, compiled over nearly three years of IAEA investigations, to the Security Council. This meeting is scheduled to pass the ElBaradei report on to the council, which then can decide what — if any — action it will take.

The board meeting was not likely to discuss the Iran issue until Tuesday or Wednesday.

The Europeans and the United States have for years opposed allowing Iran to conduct any enrichment activities — a stance that Russia, China and other influential nations have embraced.

Tehran has insisted on its right to conduct enrichment, saying it wants only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity. But enrichment also can create fissile material for warheads, and a growing number of nations share U.S. fears that that is Iran's true goal.

Russia and China, which both have economic and strategic ties with Tehran, voted with the majority of IAEA board members at a Feb. 4 meeting to report the issue to the Security Council. They insisted the council do nothing until after this week's IAEA meeting in Vienna.