West complains to IAEA chief over Iran atom remarks

VIENNA Fri May 25, 2007 2:22pm EDT

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei listens to a speech at the International Conference on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Luxembourg May 24, 2007. REUTERS/Thierry Roge

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei listens to a speech at the International Conference on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Luxembourg May 24, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Thierry Roge

VIENNA (Reuters) - U.S. and allied envoys met the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief on Friday to complain about remarks they saw as undercutting efforts to shut down Iran's uranium enrichment program, diplomats said.

Iran has made progress towards a nuclear energy industry despite pressure from big powers on Tehran to suspend all enrichment-related activity. Tehran has rejected enrichment suspension demands as a violation of its rights.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed ElBaradei has irked the West by calling for a face-saving compromise that would cap Iranian enrichment activity at its current levels before it reaches industrial scale yielding large stockpiles of fuel convertible into material for atom bombs.

Diplomats said that U.S., British, French and Japanese ambassadors to the IAEA had visited ElBaradei's office to stress that Security Council policy was law, adopted unanimously, and that they wanted his support.

"We made our concerns clear about the need for a complete suspension. We felt his published remarks were not helpful at this time," a British diplomat told Reuters. At least two other diplomats confirmed the meeting.

The U.S. State Department said the ambassadors had "raised their concerns" about ElBaradei's statements.

"All agreed that Iran needed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and noted the director-general statement yesterday (Wednesday) calling on Iran to do so," Deputy State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said.

"They reiterated their continued support for United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran's nuclear program."

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said that ElBaradei was entitled to express his views.

"On a certain number of elements ... we have a position which is not completely convergent with the director. We have therefore expressed our position like other delegations have done in Vienna," the spokesman said.

When asked if France still had confidence in ElBaradei, the spokesman said on the electronic press briefing: "We are not calling his mandate into question."

IAEA officials had no immediate comment.

ElBaradei is increasingly concerned Iran's festering stand-off with the West could lead to conflict engulfing the Middle East.

DEFIANT IRAN EXPANDING ENRICHMENT

The encounter came two days after an IAEA report said Iran was starting to enrich uranium in substantial amounts with 1,300 centrifuge machines. Iran was likely to have 3,000 installed by midsummer, laying the foundation for "industrial" production.

Citing Iran's past nuclear secrecy and continued evasion of U.N. inspector inquiries, Western powers fear Tehran is seeking atom bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy drive.

Iran, facing a third round of harsher sanctions for ignoring a new U.N. Security Council deadline this week to stop enriching uranium, says it wants only another source of electricity so it can export more of its huge but finite oil reserves.

Western officials said ElBaradei's proposal for low-level enrichment would still give Iran time and practice to perfect the technology and seemed to challenge international consensus.

Diplomats close to the IAEA said ElBaradei was not trying to undercut the Security Council or the Western powers but he felt the current approach was no longer realistic and wanted to avoid the sort of security misjudgments that led to war in Iraq.

"He just feels Western strategy is not working. Iran is not going to go for a suspension. ElBaradei feels things are at a standstill and creative thinking is needed to stop this slide to confrontation," said a diplomat close to the IAEA.

Diplomats said Germany, the third big EU state among the six powers crafting Iran policy, did not join the meeting with ElBaradei. Some German officials are receptive to his views.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in Berlin and Carol Giacomo and Sue Pleming in Washington)