January 10, 2008 / 11:24 PM / 12 years ago

U.N. watchdog chief in Iran for nuclear talks

TEHRAN (Reuters) - U.N. atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei arrived in Tehran on Friday to discuss outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a program the West fears will ultimately yield warheads.

A diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency said an agency inquiry, which Iran stonewalled for years until August, had entered a final phase addressing U.S. intelligence about past, covert attempts to “weaponize” atomic material.

The trip coincides with a Middle East tour by U.S. President George W. Bush, who has said Iran is a “threat to world peace” and is seeking Arab support to rein in Iran. Tehran dismisses U.S. charges and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

Iran and the United States are now embroiled in another row over a naval incident in the Strait of Hormuz. Washington says three of its warships were threatened by small Iranian craft on Sunday. Iran says it was a routine contact.

Foreign Ministry official Alireza Sheikhattar said ElBaradei was visiting “to discuss the remaining questions that the agency has about Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities,” the daily Tehran Emrouz reported ahead of the IAEA chief’s arrival.

ElBaradei, who declined to answer reporters’ questions on arrival, was expected to meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday, as well as other top officials during his two-day trip including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

An IAEA statement before the trip said ElBaradei hoped to “develop ways and means to enhance and accelerate” steps to clarify the past and current scope of Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Iran said in August it would answer outstanding questions one by one about its nuclear history but an end of year target mooted by ElBaradei for completing the process has passed with the most sensitive issues still unresolved.

ElBaradei is expected to seek an end to curbs on U.N. inspections needed to verify Iran’s denials of any diversions of nuclear materials into bomb making and to press for a rapid end to the inquiry into Iran’s past, diplomats in Vienna said.

Iran says its efforts to enrich uranium, the part of the program that most worries the West, are aimed at making fuel to generate electricity so it can save more of its huge gas and oil reserves for export.

Tehran’s failure to halt enrichment has drawn two rounds of U.N. sanctions, and Washington is pushing for a third.

Russia and China have been reluctant to agree on further penalties, a step made more difficult since a U.S. intelligence report in December said it believed Iran halted an active atomic bomb program in 2003. Iran denies ever having had such aims.

Some Western nations fear the U.S. report has eased pressure on Iran to heed international demands for restraint.

Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna, writing by Edmund Blair

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