Washington, 13 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency has given Iran a 31 October deadline to prove it does not have a secret nuclear-weapons program.
The decision on 12 September by the 35-nation governing board of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prompted Iran's delegation to storm out of the closed-door meeting. Tehran also threatened a "deep review" of its cooperation with the agency.
If Iran, after the deadline, is found to be in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, U.S. officials say it could open the way for economic sanctions and make it illegal for Tehran to share peaceful nuclear technology with other countries. It currently does so with Russia, among others. The officials have said they consider the deadline a "last chance."
Iran denies pursuing nuclear weapons and says its nuclear program is strictly for electricity.
IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei told reporters in Vienna: "It is Iran's right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. What the [IAEA] board is taking issue with at this stage is whether Iran is fulfilling all its obligations to ensure that Iran's [nuclear] program is for peaceful purposes."
Doubts about Iran's intentions emerged in a 26 August report by the IAEA, whose inspectors found traces of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium at a facility at Natanz, Iran. Washington has since put strong pressure on the IAEA to hold Tehran accountable to commitments as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a briefing in Washington on 12 September that should Iran fail to prove it is not developing nuclear weapons secretly, that would be "further proof" Iran has such a program. "We will continue to work closely with other members of the International Atomic Energy Agency board to insure that at its meeting the board is prepared to draw definitive conclusions and -- unless Iran immediately reverses its course -- to report Iran's non-compliance to the UN Security Council," Ereli said.
El-Baradei told reporters that the resolution sent "a very powerful message to Iran that they need to cooperate fully and immediately and to show complete transparency." He said IAEA inspectors would head to Iran in the coming weeks to answer questions about Tehran's nuclear program. "We are going to adopt a very vigorous approach, a very intensive approach to try to complete our work," he said. "We need also the support, clearly, of other countries who have been supporting Iran's [nuclear] program, and that's also a challenging task, because we need to find out who are the ones who have been supporting Iran and then to make sure that we get all the information we need."
Rose Gottemoeller is a former senior U.S. nonproliferation official now with Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent research institute. She told RFE/RL that it is possible that even if Iran is found to be in noncompliance, there may be a way for the agency and Tehran to work to bring the country back into compliance before the issue is voted on by the UN Security Council.
However, Gottemoeller said that Washington appears intent on putting maximum pressure on Iran and that could lead the Islamic state to pull out of the NPT, just as North Korea recently did. "I think in that case, if there was a lot of pressure on Iran, then they might at least threaten that course [pulling out of the NPT]," she said. "Now, whether that would be the best way forward at this point, I don't know. I happen to think that trying to bring them back in to compliance without leading to them either threatening or indeed withdrawing from the NPT would be an important step to try first."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Ljubljana that Russia is committed to ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. But Ivanov says Russia hopes to continue its nuclear cooperation program with Iran. Russia is building Iran's first nuclear plant in Bushehr, a project which has been harshly criticized by Washington, which suspects Tehran could use the plant in a nuclear-weapons program.
In a written statement, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's delegate to the IAEA, said, "We will have no choice but to have a deep review of our existing level and extent of engagement with the agency vis a vis this resolution." Salehi also insisted Iran "is a fervent subscriber to the NPT."
He said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, after invading Iraq, now "entertains the idea of invasion of yet another territory, as they aim to re-engineer and reshape the entire Middle East."