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IAEA warns of Iran atomic risk amid EU-Tehran talks

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran’s nuclear behavior poses a serious concern it might gain the ability to build atom bombs, the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said on Monday as Tehran and the EU resumed talks but dampened expectations of a breakthrough.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to journalists during a news conference in Tehran June 11, 2007. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Underlining tensions, Tehran cancelled a meeting set between its deputy nuclear negotiator and two top International Atomic Energy Agency officials as he was loath to discuss substance on IAEA questions about Iranian activity, diplomats said.

Javad Vaeedi did meet Robert Cooper, a top aide to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, for 4 1/2 hours to smooth the way to further talks between Solana and Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani.

Vaeedi called the session “constructive” and Cooper spoke of “progress”. But both cautioned people not to expect “miracles”.

There was no sign of headway towards settling the core dispute. Iran refuses to suspend its expanding nuclear fuel program in exchange for a suspension in U.N. sanctions and negotiations on trade benefits offered by world powers.

“We will continue our enrichment activities and nuclear activities without pause,” Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said on Iranian state radio.

Citing Iran’s stonewalling of IAEA inquiries into the scope of its program, Western powers fear Tehran is trying to develop atomic bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy program it says is for generating electricity.

IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei told a meeting of its governing board Iran had made itself the agency’s No. 1 nuclear proliferation concern by significantly broadening its uranium enrichment campaign while curbing cooperation with inspectors.

“DISCONCERTING”

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“This is disconcerting and regrettable,” he said in a speech opening the gathering of the 35-nation board.

“The facts on the ground indicate that Iran continues steadily to perfect its knowledge relevant to enrichment, and to expand the capacity of its enrichment facility,” said ElBaradei.

Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani had indicated to EU foreign policy chief Solana at a May 31 meeting in Madrid that Iran was ready to do more to answer longstanding IAEA questions about its disputed nuclear work.

But Iran’s foreign ministry then said the gesture depended on an end to U.N. Security Council sanctions against action.

That is a non-starter for world powers, and IAEA officials have said Iran is digging itself into a deeper hole with the international community by imposing conditions for cooperation.

The standoff is sharpening as world powers consider whether to push for a third, harsher round of U.N. Security Council sanctions to try to make Iran freeze enrichment work.

Gregory Schulte, U.S. envoy to the IAEA, said the IAEA board would scrutinize “two disturbing trends” -- expanding enrichment and diminishing IAEA inspector access “causing a troubling deterioration” in the agency’s knowledge of Iranian activity.

For over a year, Iran has limited inspections to declared nuclear sites, barring short-notice visits to other areas to probe indications of undeclared activity with military links.

In April, Iran stopped providing advance design information on planned nuclear sites, including a heavy-water reactor.

ElBaradei also said he was growing alarmed about the “current stalemate and brewing confrontation” between Iran and world powers, which he fears could lead to U.S.-Iranian war inflaming the Middle East, without a diplomatic compromise.

A U.N. official said Iran now had 2,000 enrichment centrifuges on line and was on pace for 3,000 in July. That would lay the basis for “industrial scale” enrichment that could yield enough refined uranium for an atom bomb within a year.

Iran says it will only enrich uranium to the 4-5 percent grade required for power reactors, not the 80-90 percent concentration needed for nuclear explosives.

additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran

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