- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog yesterday told President Bush that “the jury is still out” on whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons, refusing to confirm the thinking of U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran is well on its way to building a nuclear bomb.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he and Mr. Bush agreed in their 45-minute meeting that the acceleration of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is “a different ballgame” and that they will work together to put a stop to it.

“There was a concern here in Washington about the Iranian program,” Mr. ElBaradei said after his meeting at the White House. “I told them that the jury is still out, and we haven’t come to any conclusions about the nature of [Irans nuclear] program.”

The Bush administration wants to put greater pressure on Iran to prevent it from exploiting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to go beyond developing nuclear-power plants to producing a nuclear weapon.

“We have serious concerns about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “There certainly is no reason why they need to have nuclear energy, given all their vast oil and gas resources. And we need to continue to send a clear, consistent and strong message to Iran.”

Mr. ElBaradei said he is confident that inspections by the IAEA — as well as more international cooperation to restrict traffic in nuclear materials — will work to keep Iran’s program in check.

“We will continue to apply very vigorous inspections and, hopefully, will expect to see full transparency by Iran if Iran wants to prove that its [nuclear program] is for peaceful purposes,” Mr. ElBaradei said.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. ElBaradei told the House subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia that he has not ruled out the possibility that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. But he also noted that he had to choose his words very carefully to prevent justifying military action against any regime pursuing a nuclear program.

“Our statements can make the difference between war and peace,” he said. “That’s why we have to be careful.”

The crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program was sparked in August 2002, when an exiled opposition group said Iran was hiding a massive underground uranium-enrichment plant.

Iran denies those accusations and has decried “plots by the U.S.” to undermine what it says is a peaceful nuclear program.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami yesterday accused the United States of bringing the “worst pressures on the IAEA” and turning other countries against it unjustly.

On Saturday, Iranian officials announced an indefinite freeze on IAEA inspections after the agency’s board of governors censured Iran for hiding suspicious activities. Iran relented Tuesday, however, and will allow the IAEA back into the country on March 27.

“We will continue cooperation with the IAEA as long as our interests require and as long as we know various plots led by the U.S. are ineffective,” Mr. Khatami told reporters in Tehran yesterday.

Mr. ElBaradei said he doesn’t think two weeks is enough time for Iran to hide any illegal nuclear activities.

The director said he was assured by Mr. Bush and CIA Director George J. Tenet that the IAEA will receive cooperation from U.S. intelligence agencies to do an effective job of policing rogue nuclear states.

“I think we all understand that we need intelligence, we need resources, and we need technology to do a good job,” Mr. ElBaradei said. “We agreed, both President Bush and I, that we are partners and we need to work together if we want to protect ourselves.

“This is a different ball game, and we need to think outside the box,” he said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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