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Iran to address nuclear arms allegations: IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has agreed to answer intelligence allegations that it studied how to design nuclear bombs, the chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday.

Mohamed ElBaradei called the gesture a “milestone”. The Islamic Republic has previously denied the reports but declined to address them in detail.

Resolving whether Iran secretly tried to “weaponise” nuclear materials is key to winding up an International Atomic Energy Agency inquiry into Iran’s nuclear program, now under U.N. sanctions due to suspicions of a covert quest for bombs.

“(This agreement) 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,” IAEA Director-General ElBaradei said.

“This, in my view, is a positive step,” he told reporters during a visit to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

His spokeswoman said the deal was struck during meetings in Tehran on Monday and Tuesday between Iranian leaders and Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s safeguards chief and top investigator.

The IAEA did not elaborate. Iran had called the talks with Heinonen “positive” but had not said what they involved.

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Iran has rejected the intelligence about weapons experiments as fabricated. It said earlier exchanges with the IAEA had resolved the issue and there would be no more discussions.

But the IAEA has insisted Iran back up its denials with proof. U.S. intelligence findings said Iran researched bomb designs until 2003 and other countries believe the illicit work continued more recently.

An unidentified Iranian official in the delegation that met Heinonen did not mention the deal in remarks released by the official news agency IRNA. “Iran’s door is open for negotiations with IAEA legal representatives and Iran will continue its cooperation with the agency like before,” the official said.

Iran says its nuclear campaign aims solely to generate an alternative source of electricity so that it can export more of its oil and gas. It is the world’s No. 4 oil exporter.

LEGACY OF SECRECY

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

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to journalists before the start of an official meeting with Deputy Prime Minister of the Sultanate of Oman, Sayyid Fahad Mahmoud al-Said, in Tehran April 21, 2008. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Iran is under sanctions for refusing to suspend 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.

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.

“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.

ElBaradei is due to issue a quarterly report on Iran in late May, shortly before an IAEA governors’ meeting.

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 investigations by inspectors.

(additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran)

Editing by Robert Woodward

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