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IAEA governors approve nuclear aid cut to Iran

VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. nuclear agency governors on Thursday approved cuts in technical aid to Iran to uphold U.N. sanctions implemented over concern that Tehran may be trying to master the means to build atom bombs.

Aliasghar Soltaniyeh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, briefs the media during an IAEA board of governors meeting at Vienna's U.N. headquarters, March 7, 2007. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

The move by the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reflected a December resolution by the U.N. Security Council banning transfers of technology or expertise to Iran that might be applied to producing nuclear fuel.

Only two other states in the IAEA’s 50-year history have been stripped of nuclear aid over fear about possible diversions into bombmaking -- North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Iran says that its nuclear program is meant only to generate electricity. The program is centered on uranium enrichment, a process which can either yield fuel for power plants or for bombs if taken to higher degrees.

Western powers suspect a hidden agenda to build nuclear arms and four years of IAEA investigations often stonewalled by Iran have failed to verify Iran’s intentions are entirely peaceful.

By consensus, the board ratified a decision by the IAEA’s Secretariat to freeze or curb 22 of the 55 aid projects, closing ranks on an issue that earlier had split the governing body.

Western powers such as the United States and France who bankroll the IAEA’s special aid programs and drew up sanctions against Iran originally demanded more sweeping reductions.

IRAN DEFIANT

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, condemned the decision and blamed the U.N. Security Council, saying it had illegally undermined the IAEA’s professional independence.

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“None of these projects are in fact related to the enrichment program, which will continue as planned under (monitoring of IAEA inspectors),” he told reporters.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) bloc of developing states, to which Iran belongs, had opposed cuts. They feared a precedent would be set jeopardizing their own access to IAEA aid for nuclear energy seen as key to modernizing their economies.

They also noted there is no hard evidence Iran is abusing IAEA resources for military ends, although doubts abound.

But fears of an unprecedented, debilitating political dispute on the board over the matter eased last month after a Secretariat review of technical aid for Iran.

“No one declared dissatisfaction with the Secretariat’s choices, which were made in an extremely professional manner,” Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, Egypt’s envoy to the IAEA, told reporters.

“Several members underlined the need to remain vigilant to ensure that IAEA assistance to Iran be fully consistent with the resolution,” current board chairman Slovenia said in a summary of the closed-door deliberations , referring to Western powers.

“(Several members) stressed technical cooperation should not be subject to any political conditions,” it said of the NAM.

The blocked projects related to nuclear power planning and technical and security measures in developing nuclear fuel.

Projects that were spared involve radiopharmaceuticals and isotopes for medical, agriculture and humanitarian purposes.

Iran ignored a February 21 U.N. Security Council deadline to stop refining uranium and took initial steps to shift from research-level enrichment to “industrial-scale” production.

But U.S.-led efforts to broaden sanctions face resistance from veto-wielding Russia and China, big trade partners of Iran.

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