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UN: IAEA Meeting Begins In Vienna Amid Disagreement On Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) opened its annual general conference in Vienna today, following last week's meeting of its board of governors. While Iran dominated last week's discussions, key agenda items at the 135-nation meeting this week are also Iraq and North Korea.

Prague, 15 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Muhammad el-Baradei, renewed his call today for Iran to reveal all details of its nuclear program, in light of the agency's recent finding of highly enriched uranium samples at an Iranian nuclear site.

El-Baradei spoke at the opening of the UN nuclear agency's annual general conference in Vienna.

"It is essential and urgent that all outstanding issues -- particularly those involving highly enriched uranium -- be brought to a closure as soon as possible to enable the agency to provide the required assurances [that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program]."

The conference, which brings together officials from 135 member nations, follows last week's meeting of the IAEA's 35 governors.

On 12 September, at the Board of Governors' meeting, the IAEA adopted a resolution giving Iran until 31 October to prove it does not have a nuclear-weapons program. If the next board meeting in November rules that Iran has failed to meet its obligation, the IAEA could vote to send the matter for debate to the Security Council. Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Roberto Antonione, speaking on behalf of the European Union, also urged Iran today to ensure "full transparency" so as to restore the confidence of the international community.

The Tehran government has protested the IAEA decision, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asafi telling reporters yesterday that his country is re-evaluating the nature of its cooperation with the world body. Today, however, Iranian Vice President and Atomic Energy Ministry head Gholamreza Aghazadeh struck a more conciliatory note, telling the meeting that Iran remains "fully committed" to its obligations.

Despite the concern over Iran, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming tells RFE/RL from Vienna that this week's general conference has a broader agenda.

"The general conference is an opportunity every year for countries to review what the IAEA has been doing in all of the areas that it works in," she said. "It may seem to most people that the IAEA is only involved in the kind of 'hot' issues like Iraq, North Korea, [and] Iran. But it has a whole number of issues that a lot of countries that are here [in Vienna] -- the IAEA has about 135 member states -- really care about. Developing countries in Africa and Latin America, for example, are interested in nuclear technology, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in agriculture and medicine. So we're going to hear a lot about that."

Delegates are also expected to take up a topic regularly put forward by Arab states: the denuclearization of the Middle East, specifically Israel, which is the only presumed nuclear state in the region. This year Oman, on behalf of the Arab League, has presented a resolution which, according to Fleming, has garnered considerable interest.

"There have been initiatives to have a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East," she said. "This would include countries that might be known to have nuclear weapons. This has been a discussion on the agenda in the IAEA for 20-odd years. Somehow this year it seems to be getting more attention and more resonance."

North Korea and Iraq remain unavoidable topics on this week's agenda. North Korea, which became the first country to declare its unilateral withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last January after kicking out IAEA inspectors, has not sent any representatives to the meeting. But the IAEA says it expects to play a key role if an international agreement to end the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang is eventually reached.

On the issue of Iraq, the IAEA says it still has a mandate to continue inspections that were interrupted by the U.S.-led war. Fleming tells RFE/RL that "for the sake of objectivity and transparency," U.S. forces currently combing Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction should allow IAEA monitors back into the country as soon as possible.

"The IAEA is the world's body that has been entrusted with the expertise and with the credibility to judge whether countries have nuclear weapons programs or don't, and we believe that if there is information about such a program, we would like to see it."

The IAEA general conference is expected to continue through the rest of the week.