VIENNA The chief U.N. nuclear monitor urged Iran on Thursday to stop expanding uranium enrichment to ease a standoff with world powers, who have demanded Tehran shut down the program entirely.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the festering stalemate between Iran and the U.N. Security Council was leading to confrontation but that resorting to war on Tehran would "be an act of madness".
Speaking at the end of an IAEA policymaking meeting that made no headway on the Iran crisis, he also said Iran continued to perfect enrichment technology but there was no proof it has overcome all technical obstacles, as Tehran has proclaimed.
Iran says it aims to refine uranium only to the low level required for civilian energy, not the high level suitable for bombs. But Tehran's past concealment of activity from inspectors and stonewalling of IAEA inquiries have stoked suspicions.
Instead of halting enrichment, as the Security Council has demanded, Iran has rapidly expanded its program, prompting EU powers to warn on Wednesday it faced stiffer sanctions in addition to the two rounds the Security Council has imposed.
"I call on Iran again that at this critical stage (to) impose or adopt a self-imposed moratorium on its capacity building in the area of centrifuges," ElBaradei said.
He was referring to Iran's vast Natanz enrichment bunker where it plans "industrial scale" production of nuclear fuel.
"It would be a good confidence-building measure if Iran would right now have a self-imposed moratorium, on the level of the number of centrifuges being built," he said.
ElBaradei said the current stalemate could prove disastrous.
"If we go the way we are heading, I can see that we will be heading towards confrontation," ElBaradei told reporters.
"Even the idea of people talking about using force ... it would be catastrophic, it would be an act of madness, and it would not solve the issue," he said.
The United States and Israel, the Islamic Republic's arch-adversaries, have not ruled out a last-resort military action to crush Iran's nuclear infrastructure if negotiations backed up by sanctions do not work.
IRAN MAKING ADVANCES
ElBaradei last month angered the United States and European allies by saying Iran had mastered a basic enrichment program and they should consider negotiating to cap it short of industrial level that could lead to atomic bombs.
The four powers, Russia and China have stuck to the demand for a total enrichment halt in exchange for a suspension to sanctions and negotiations to implement trade benefits on offer to Iran. But Tehran has rejected what it calls attempts to deny its right to a sovereign, civilian nuclear energy program.
ElBaradei said Iran was indeed making advances towards an enrichment industry after years of research-level activity.
"They have 1,700 to 2,000 centrifuges right now," he said, adding that Iran was on target to have about 3,000 running by the end of July. That would be enough to yield material for one bomb in a year if operated nonstop.
But he said inspectors had not yet been able to verify whether the centrifuges were running at optimal speed or whether some might have crashed, as they have a number of times before.
ElBaradei stressed that current intelligence showed Iran remained "years" away from the capability to assemble nuclear explosives, assuming it wanted them, and then repeated earlier assessments of a 3-8 year time frame.
Earlier on Thursday, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA warned it may reconsider basic cooperation with IAEA inspectors if it was hit with harsher U.N. sanctions.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh said Tehran had mastered the means to enrich uranium and world powers must accept that fact instead of trying to stop the work through sanctions.