VIENNA The U.N. nuclear watchdog on Tuesday rejected Western suggestions it is being soft on Iran, denying that its chief was declaring questions about Tehran's atomic work resolved despite doubts of his inspectors.
A senior official close to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed ElBaradei accused unnamed Western powers of using the same "hype" tactics employed against Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to justify imposing further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
The IAEA is due to issue a report next week before world powers meet to finalize a U.N. Security Council resolution on more sanctions. The West accuses Iran of secretly seeking the means to make nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran denies.
Ahead of the IAEA report, some Western diplomats said the agency's inspectors were unhappy with top level decisions to declare issues clarified without what they deemed to be sufficiently credible explanations from Iran.
A French media report said on Monday differences between ElBaradei and technical staff could delay the latest report on whether Iran illicitly tried to enrich uranium for arms, not just electricity as it maintains.
Departing from normal IAEA silence ahead of its politically sensitive reports, a senior agency official telephoned Reuters on Tuesday to deny reports of internal dissent.
"Reports about disagreements within the agency over the forthcoming Iran report are nonsense," said the official, who asked not to be further identified. "Work on the first draft of the report has not even started."
"Some people do not want to see the Iran issue resolved because that would contradict their hidden agendas, he said, adding that "people should have learned from their mistakes in the past, when all the hype over alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq turned out to be just that -- hype".
Iran agreed in January to answer remaining questions about its past covert nuclear activities within a month. Major progress has been made since and the inquiry is now in its final stages, IAEA sources say.
BIGGEST ISSUE STILL OUTSTANDING
The senior official said Iran had still not clarified the final and most important question on a list delving into its covert nuclear history -- suspected attempts under military supervision to "weaponize" nuclear materials.
"Our inspectors are still working on clarifying the facts about the alleged weaponization activities in Iran," he said.
The official said that the Vienna-based IAEA's central role was to collect information impartially and place it before the agency's 35-nation board of governors.
"If the facts are at odds with the policy objectives of some people who are keen to impose further sanctions on Iran, that's too bad," the official added.
Before it invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, the United States disregarded IAEA testimony to the Security Council that there was no proof Iraq was still seeking nuclear bombs.
No such evidence to back a major U.S. justification for what turned into a chaotic occupation of Iraq has surfaced since.
"Not a single question has ever been raised by member states about the objectivity and professionalism of our reports," the IAEA official said. "This next one will be no different."
He criticized what he called similar hype about an ongoing nuclear arms drive in Iran until Washington's own intelligence agencies said in December that this had been shelved in 2003.
ElBaradei has said Iran's enrichment program poses no imminent threat to international peace. But he has urged Iran to lift restrictions on inspector movements and comply with suspension demands to defuse mistrust in its intentions.