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Iran unlikely to back down over IAEA's atom bomb probe

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog has raised the stakes in a Western standoff with Iran by lending credence to allegations it studied ways to make atom bombs, but Tehran looks unlikely to give ground. Before big power talks on Wednesday on whether to sharpen sanctions against Iran, the agency released a summary of its probe into whether Tehran linked projects to process uranium, conduct high-altitude explosive tests relevant to detonating atom bombs, and tried to revamp a missile cone to house a nuclear payload.

No “smoking gun” proof of a bomb agenda emerged in the distillation of the five-year-old International Atomic Energy Agency investigation, reflected in an August 28 IAEA report on Iran’s contested uranium enrichment program.

But in unusually forthright language, the IAEA said the intelligence was too consistent, comprehensive and detailed, coming from multiple sources at different times, for Iran to keep dodging scrutiny with blanket denials.

A senior diplomat close to the inquiry said serious “circumstantial suspicions” arose when myriad threads of information were pieced together, including procurement records and a military role in nuclear component production.

Iran denounced the intelligence, obtained from 10 countries, as forged or irrelevant and cut off dialogue about it with the IAEA a year ago. But it has also admitted to some research cited in the dossier, while denying this had any nuclear applications.

Asked what the summary’s message was, a senior U.N. official said “there is a real basis” in the allegations and Iran must stop withholding documentation, access to sites and to nuclear officials for interviews needed to establish the truth.

A U.S. intelligence report in late 2007 assessed that Iran shelved nuclear “weaponization” research in 2003. But European and Israeli officials believe it went on after that, and IAEA sleuthing has lent support to that view, diplomats say.

“For the first time, an official IAEA document is tending to treat the intelligence as genuine. This puts Iran in a tighter spot,” said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks nuclear proliferation.

IRAN DISTRACTED BY UNREST

But Iran looks even less likely to open its nuclear books than before because its convoluted Islamic power structure, unsuited to making clear decisions changing strategic direction, is now preoccupied with internal splits over alleged vote fraud.

“It was very unlikely before June and the political turmoil ensuing since then makes it impossible for Iran to take such a sensitive, risky step,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The only way Iran would fess up to past weapons development work would be if the outcome of a negotiation gave Iran some benefits and the equivalent of a ‘get out of jail free’ card removing the prospect of further sanctions for past activity.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and allied European powers have given Iran until the end of September to accept negotiations on suspending its nuclear work in exchange for major trade benefits or face sanctions targeting its lifeblood oil sector.

Iranian officials have again ruled out a halt to uranium enrichment or even a freeze at current levels mooted discreetly by Western officials as a face-saving conduit into talks.

But on Tuesday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator was quoted by state media as saying it was ready for talks with world powers that would involve arch-foe Washington for the first time.

Iran says it will enrich uranium only to low levels needed for electricity so it can export more oil. The West suspects a covert quest for nuclear weapons capability, noting Iran lacks nuclear power plants that would use low-enriched uranium.

“ALLEGED MILITARY DIMENSIONS”

The declassified IAEA summary hardened some of the concerns about “alleged military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program.

It said Iran had conceded the existence of a letter about a shadowy project called Green Salt -- referring to uranium processing -- and this “demonstrates a direct link between the relevant documentation and Iran.”

It also said the IAEA had confirmed a stay in Iran by a foreign explosives expert believed to have helped Iran in attempting multiple, simultaneous detonations at high altitude. Diplomats say the expert was from a former Soviet republic.

The IAEA has repeatedly told Iran that it has failed to adequately address “the substance of the issues, having focused instead on the style and form of presentation of the written documents relevant to the alleged studies and providing limited answers or simple denials...,” the agency report said.

Key chunks of the intelligence were smuggled out of Iran on a laptop that was slipped to U.S. agents in Turkey in 2004.

A senior European diplomat accredited to the IAEA said the summary would bolster the West’s case for more biting sanctions on Iran if it proved unprepared to negotiate seriously.

But he said Russia and China would probably resist anew by seizing on fresh Iranian gestures to the IAEA including a deal permitting closer monitoring of the Natanz enrichment complex.

Editing by Charles Dick

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