- Associated Press - Monday, September 13, 2010

VIENNA, Austria (AP) — The U.N. nuclear agency cannot confirm that all of Iran’s atomic activities are peaceful because of Tehran’s selective cooperation with nuclear inspectors, the agency’s chief said Monday.

Yukiya Amano also chided Iran for barring some of those inspectors, warning that move hampered his watchdog agency’s attempts to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. And he suggested the jury is still out on allegations that Tehran conducted secret experiments meant to develop atomic arms because the Islamic Republic continues to stonewall an IAEA probe into U.S. and other intelligence agency reports purporting to contain evidence of such experiments.

Mr. Amano’s blunt comments, at the start of a 35-nation IAEA board meeting, drew a strong response from Iran, which accused him of distorting facts in a report prepared for the gathering.

“We request the director general to immediately reconsider this sort of reporting … so that it will not create political tensions,” said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA.

Iran insists it is interested only in generating energy through enrichment. But since revelations of its secret enrichment program eight years ago, concerns have grown that Iran is interested in making nuclear weapons, in part through its refusal to give up enrichment and accept fuel from abroad.

The IAEA report noted that Iran continued to enrich uranium in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, and focused in greater detail on issues mentioned Monday by Mr. Amano — the lack of progress on the IAEA probe of Iran’s purported arms program experiments, and Tehran’s decision to strip two inspectors of their monitoring rights after they reported what they called undeclared nuclear experiments.

“This report is the clearest evidence yet that Iran is refusing to address the proliferation concerns of the international community, number one, and number two, much more ominously that it appears determined to acquire a nuclear weapons capability,” Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, told reporters.

While all member states select inspectors from an official IAEA list, some Western nations on the agency’s board argue that because Iran has banned more than 40 inspectors over the past four years, a case could be made that Tehran is violating the agency’s Safeguards Agreement.

The agreement is meant to ensure that the IAEA can monitor Iran’s nuclear program without impediments to make sure it is solely for peaceful purposes.

In banning the two monitors, Tehran argued that they misreported what they saw — a view rejected Monday by Mr. Amano.

“I express my full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the inspectors concerned,” he said. “Iran’s repeated objection to the designation of inspectors with experience in Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle and facilities hampers the inspection process.”

Mr. Amano urged Iran to withdraw its 2007 ban on 38 inspectors, announced in apparent retaliation for the imposition of U.N. sanctions because of the Islamic Republic’s refusal to freeze enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile warhead material.

Since then, Iran refuses to accept inspectors from the five U.N. Security Council nations — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, all nuclear weapons states whose experts posses the kind of knowledge on nuclear weapons research that IAEA officials say the agency cannot provide through training. Germany, which also supported the sanctions, is also not allowed to send inspectors to Iran either.

Mr. Amano, in separate comments to reporters, described the problem as “not the number of inspectors, but the quality and experience.

“I can assure you that the safeguard process is remaining effective,” he said. “But if unchecked, the repeated objection to the designation of inspectors will be problematic.”

The dispute has erupted at a sensitive time for the IAEA, with the departure of Olli Heinonen, the deputy director general in charge of investigating Iran. During his five years at the post, Heinonen had developed a reputation for toughness in pursuing allegations that Iran was hiding a nuclear weapons program, and Western nations had expressed concerns that any successor would not be as diligent.

Mr. Amano on Monday filled that post with Mr. Heinonen’s deputy, Herman Nackaerts.

Beyond Iran, the board — and a subsequent assembly of the 151 IAEA member nations — will focus on allegations of a hidden Syrian nuclear program; something Syria denies. Israel — which is commonly considered to have nuclear arms — is also on the agenda, with Islamic nations pushing the Jewish state to open its atomic activities to IAEA perusal.