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Iran agrees to address nuclear arms allegations

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has agreed to clarify intelligence alleging that it studied how to design nuclear bombs, a gesture the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief on Wednesday called a “milestone”.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits for Sayyid Fahad Mahmoud al-Said, Deputy Prime Minister of the Sultanate of Oman, before the start of an official meeting in Tehran April 21, 2008. Iran is ready to discuss its nuclear issue with any country but will not yield to international pressure to halt the atomic work, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech on Wednesday. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Tehran has previously denied the reports but declined to address them in detail.

“(This) is a certain milestone and hopefully by the end of May we’ll be in position to get the explanation and clarification from Iran as to these alleged studies,” said International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei.

“This in my view is a positive step. I hope we will be able to clarify within the next few weeks this important issue,” he told reporters during a visit to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

Iran had rejected the reports as baseless, fabricated or irrelevant and said exchanges with IAEA officials on the issue had resolved it and there would be no more discussions. But the U.N. watchdog has insisted Iran back up its denials with proof.

“An agreement was reached during meetings in Tehran (on Monday and Tuesday) on a process that aims to clarify the so-called alleged studies during the month of May,” IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in a statement in Vienna.

She did not elaborate. Iran had given an upbeat assessment on Tuesday of the two days of talks with Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s safeguards chief and top investigator, saying they were “positive” but not saying what was discussed.

Iran says its nuclear campaign is a peaceful quest for an alternative source of electricity so that it can export more of its oil and gas. It is the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter.

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But Iran’s history of nuclear secrecy and continued restrictions on IAEA inspections fan Western suspicions that the underlying purpose of its bid to industrialise uranium enrichment is the ability to make atom bombs.

Iran is under U.N. sanctions for refusing to halt the work.

Diplomats said the point of Heinonen’s trip was to push for Iranian responses to the intelligence, which indicated Iran linked projects to process uranium, test high explosives and modify a missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.

Iranian officials had said Heinonen’s visit was “ordinary”, meant to “advance cooperation” with the IAEA, which monitors Tehran’s declared uranium-processing and enrichment sites.

It was not clear why Iran could not start explaining the intelligence at this week’s talks since IAEA investigators had already confronted Tehran with certain details early this year.

Western powers on the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors have accused Iran of evasive tactics that dragged out agency inquiries for years before it supplied explanations that allowed the agency to resolve other questions over the past six months.

ElBaradei is due to issue the next of his quarterly reports on Iran in late May, shortly before an IAEA governors meeting.

“Answers are long overdue,” said a European diplomat accredited to the IAEA when asked about the Iran-IAEA deal.

“We hope Iran will now take the opportunity to engage seriously on these important questions without any further delay as requested in U.N. Security Council (resolutions) and suspend all enrichment related activities so as to allow negotiations, to reach a long-term settlement to this issue,” he said.

The IAEA’s information, which remains unverified, comes from an Iranian defector’s laptop computer handed to the United States in 2004, intelligence from some other Western sources, and from probing by inspectors themselves.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week vowed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, possibly by expanding international sanctions.

(additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo)

Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia