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."
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."
Comprehensive sanctions could further slow development in Iran's strategic oil and gas sectors (Fars)
WHAT DOES TEHRAN REALLY THINK? On August 22, Radio Farda correspondent Fatemeh Aman spoke with Alex Vatanka, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group, by telephone from Alexandria, Virginia. Vatanka discussed the possible impact that comprehensive sanctions could have for Iran.
Radio Farda: Some Iranian authorities are trying to create the impression that they aren't concerned about the possibility of international sanctions against it. They emphasize that what Iran has achieved so far has happened despite the sanctions already in place against it. Are they really not afraid of sanctions?
Vatanka: I think that what the Iranians are trying to do is to continue to play this balancing act. On the one hand, they are trying to say, "Look, we have done without you for 27 years; we can continue." On the other hand, if you look at every other major Iranian overture toward the U.S., obviously what they are hoping to do is remove those sanctions. It is the sanctions that have been the biggest obstacle to a genuine expansion in the Iranian economy. It is the sanctions and U.S. policies vis-a-vis Iran that have, for instance, kept Iran from joining the World Bank. It is sanctions and so on that have made the Iranian oil industry have such a tough time in bringing investment into the strategic oil and gas sectors. People like [former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-]Rafsanjani back in the mid 1990s even kept certain fields untouched because the idea was that U.S. companies should have those once the sanctions were lifted.
I think sanctions are quite important to the Iranians, but at the same time what they are trying to say is, "Don't assume that we are going to fall off our chair just because you mentioned the sanctions card." It is part of a kind diplomatic chess game going on by Tehran. But remember if we look and listen to Iranian reformists, this is being openly debated inside Iran. The question that is being asked of [President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his entourage] is, "What is the ultimate objective?" Is it just Islamic independence? Is it just the ability to enrich uranium? The debate in Iran by the reformists -- and I think a lot of people would sympathize with this -- is, "What are we being sanctioned for exactly and what policies do you have to make sure that those sanctions don't hit us harder than we have already been hit?"
Remember, the big issue here is this: Iran has been sanctioned by the U.S. Iran has never faced comprehensive United Nations sanctions. The Iranian people have never suffered on a scale that the Iraqi people, for instance, suffered because of such sanctions. So it is kind of disingenuous of these senior leaders to pretend that Iran has already gone through comprehensive sanctions. Iran has not. And it will be totally different set of circumstances that will have a totally different impact on Iranian society and the economy, should the UN impose comprehensive sanctions on the country.
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
An annotated timeline
of Iran's nuclear program.