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IAEA Chief Pushes For More Talks With Iran

May 24, 2007 -- The head of the UN's nuclear guardian has estimated that Iran could build a nuclear weapon within "three to eight years" -- if it chose that path -- and urged both sides in the international standoff with Iran to pursue negotiations.

Muhammad el-Baradei was speaking at a nuclear-energy conference one day after his International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported increased Iranian nuclear activity despite mounting UN Security Council sanctions.

El-Baradei's remarks today in Luxembourg appeared to reflect fears that the Iranian nuclear dispute could eventually spark a "major confrontation."

He warned both sides against continuing the current path and urged them to find a compromise.

"Iran needs to listen to the international community," el-Baradei said. "It needs to suspend its enrichment activities as a confidence-building measure. But also, the international community should do its utmost to engage in Iran in a comprehensive dialogue."

5-Percent Enrichment

El-Baradei repeated his agency's conclusion that Iran has "over 1,000 centrifuges operating" and has been able to enrich uranium to about 5 percent.

He noted that there are lingering issues to clear up from past nuclear activities. And in a reference to a May 23 IAEA report, he expressed particular concern that Iran's current advances are coming in the absence of UN nuclear inspectors to monitor all of those activities.

"I expressed concern because [expansion of uranium enrichment] is happening at a time when the agency is not able to do full inspection, robust inspection, and at a time, also, when we were not able to verify the history of that program," el-Baradei said. "We still have the [unresolved] issues."

The IAEA chief also spoke in favor of an internationally run nuclear-fuel production facility to head off potential disputes such as the one currently souring Iran's relations with major powers.

How Close To A Bomb?

But the statement that might receive the most attention is el-Baradei's remark about the length of time that Iran might conceivably need to produce a nuclear weapon.

"I tend, based on our analysis, to agree with people like [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] John Negroponte and the new director of CIA, who are saying that Iran, even if they want to go for the nuclear weapon, still, it will not be before the end of this decade or some time in the middle of the next decade," he said. "In other words, three to eight years from now."

It is difficult to gauge whether his blunt assessment of Iran's potential capacity to make a nuclear weapon is likely to harden the position of those -- like Washington -- who are determined to prevent Tehran from reaching that point.

The so-called 5+1 powers -- the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany -- are likely to meet soon to seek ways to dissuade Iran from uranium enrichment.

U.S. officials have already suggested they will press for a further tightening of sanctions to deter Iran from its present course.

But speaking in Iran today, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed to push ahead and accused the West of trying to block Iran's emergence as a global power.

Ahmadinejad said those "enemies" want to "thwart Iran's exploitation of peaceful nuclear technology" and thus "hit at the source of the [current leadership's] progress."

(AP, Reuters)

Copyright (c) 2007 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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