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Iran: IAEA Meets As Teheran Balks At Signing Protocol To Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The UN's nuclear watchdog met for a second day in Vienna today to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Yesterday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad el-Baradei, urged Iran to sign an Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to allay concerns that Tehran might be developing nuclear weapons. So far, Iran has balked.

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- International calls are increasing for Iran to sign an Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that would permit stricter inspections of its nuclear sites.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad el-Baradei, yesterday urged Tehran to accept the protocol and "provide credible assurances" that the country is pursuing a purely civilian nuclear program, as the authorities in Tehran claim.

El-Baradei's appeal came at the start of the IAEA's board of governors meeting in Vienna, which is due to continue through this week. One of the central issues being discussed is Iran's nuclear program, based on an internal report conducted by the IAEA that faults Tehran for concealing past imports of some nuclear materials.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told RFE/RL that the Additional Protocol is of great importance. It would give IAEA inspectors the freedom to conduct snap inspections at any site of their choosing, instead of only examining Iran's declared nuclear facilities.

"This is a very important agreement for the IAEA. It expands our rights -- our legal rights -- to access facilities and information in a given country. And I'd like to point out that we are urging all countries to sign up to this Additional Protocol. It's not just Iran, but Iran right now, specifically, because it is pursuing an ambitious nuclear-power program, which of course makes it all the more important for Iran to provide the world with transparency and for us to be given the capability to provide the assurances that the world is asking for -- that this program is only being used for peaceful purposes," Fleming said.

The Additional Protocol, drafted in 1991, has been ratified by some 30 countries so far, including all 15 members of the European Union, which yesterday added its voice to those calling on Iran to sign. The EU, which does $13 billion in trade per year with Tehran, is Iran's biggest commercial partner.

Russia is now urging Tehran to accept the deal. Moscow has also signed the IAEA protocol and is helping Iran build a civilian nuclear-power plant that is due to come on line in 2005.

The United States has repeatedly pressured Moscow to renege on its $800 million deal to build the Bushehr nuclear-power plant, concerned that Iran could divert technology and fuel from the project to pursue nuclear-weapons research. That pressure has grown stronger in the wake of the Iraq war. Moscow has refused to give up its nuclear trade with Tehran, but analysts say Russia would like to see Iran sign the protocol as a way of deflecting the pressure it is feeling from Washington.

At present, Melissa Fleming said, IAEA inspectors do have the option of asking to visit undeclared suspect facilities in Iran, but the procedure is time consuming and the Iranian authorities are not obliged to comply.

"Should there be a facility that we believe is important to our inspection effort -- even if that facility is not declared -- we can ask to go there. We can, if we believe it is something that is totally necessary and urgent to answer questions about an inspection, request a special inspection at such a facility. So there are ways, but it's not as automatic as with an Additional Protocol," Fleming said.

So far, Iran has balked at signing the protocol, saying it wants to obtain guaranteed access to Western civilian nuclear technology. Speaking in Tehran yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was noncommittal, saying Iran wants to continue cooperating with the IAEA, but not unless the agency also shows a positive attitude.

"Of course, we have seen parts of the [IAEA] report. We have spoken with the agency. We told them that we are transparent. We announced our readiness for cooperation [with the IAEA]. We have been cooperating in the past. We hope that the agency will fulfill its duties professionally," Asefi said.

Delegates to the IAEA's board of governors meeting will most likely take up the Iran case tomorrow. Fleming said the agency is also discussing other important issues at its Vienna meeting, including the possibility of receiving additional funds to carry out its inspection work around the world -- not just in Iran.

"One of the most important items on the agenda is the agency's budget. There is a move to increase the budget for the first time in over 15 years to get out of this zero real growth and to increase the budget by about $30 million. The IAEA has appealed to its member states to allow this increase, which is unprecedented in the UN system. Basically, all UN organizations have been stuck, with no budget increases for years and years. The IAEA has said that without this budget increase it cannot carry out, in a credible manner, its safeguards mandate very much longer," Fleming said.

Assuming the money is made available, Fleming said IAEA inspections in Iran will continue, regardless of whether Tehran bows to international pressure and signs the additional protocol. "IAEA inspections will continue, one way or the other, as they are continuing now. There are inspectors in Iran as we speak, and they're working towards answering a number of open questions that are reflected in Mr. el-Baradei's report to the board. And we expect to report, perhaps more comprehensively, to the board again in September. Additional Protocol or not, inspections will continue," she said.

The IAEA meeting in Vienna is expected to continue until 20 June.