Iran Pledges Transparency in Its Nuclear Development

Times Staff Writer

Saying it wanted to ease international concerns, Iran pledged Saturday to be more open about its nuclear development plans, a day after it allowed outside inspectors to tour a key nuclear facility.

The visit by a team headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, gave Iran a chance to distinguish itself from Iraq and North Korea, the other nations that make up what President Bush has called the "axis of evil."

The U.S. is seeking a diplomatic way to end North Korea's nuclear program and has been sending forces to the Mideast to back up its pledge to use force, if needed, to disarm Iraq.

"Iran intended to clarify that all doors would be open to the agency and its members and that Iran would proceed transparently," Gholamreza Aghazadeh, Iran's atomic energy chief, said at a joint news conference with ElBaradei.

"Tehran's progress is impressive," ElBaradei said. The U.N.'s chief nuclear inspector called for regular monitoring to "provide more assurance to the international community."

ElBaradei and his colleagues visited a uranium enrichment facility under construction at the city of Natanz on Friday, the first time outsiders had been allowed at the plant.

The Bush administration has said the site, about 200 miles from Tehran, is part of a covert effort to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its nuclear program is only for energy production.

ElBaradei also had planned to visit a heavy-water processing plant at Arak, in western Iran, but he left the country after two days, leaving the rest of the inspection team to continue.

At the news conference, ElBaradei said the Iranian government agreed to provide information about new facilities "from the day the decision is taken." He said this early information would be a "welcome measure of transparency."

Aghazadeh said Iran extended an invitation to ElBaradei as an indication of its good faith. Forthrightness with international weapons inspectors, Iran hopes, will improve relations with the West and secure a better standing in the global community.

In meetings with President Mohammad Khatami, and key leaders such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, ElBaradei tried to persuade Iran to accept an "additional protocol" that would allow for more expansive and regular monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. He said Iran had developed a fuel cycle program sophisticated enough to warrant more inspections and more safeguards.

However, Iran appears reluctant, for now, to agree to more invasive inspections. Aghazadeh said too few nations had accepted the agency's additional protocol to make it a pressing obligation for Iran to do so.

"All our developments will be under the oversight of the IAEA, but we will leave the road open to the additional protocol in the future," he said.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group with close links to the militant organization Moujahedeen Khalq, revealed the existence of the Natanz and Arak facilities last fall.

The group alleged last week in Washington that Iranian officials removed equipment from the Natanz site before the IAEA team arrived, but ElBaradei made no mention of irregularities during his visit.

The reports of the previously undisclosed nuclear sites alarmed Washington, which contends that Iran's civilian nuclear program is a cover for its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Russian assistance to the Iranian civilian nuclear program -- which has enabled its growth over the years -- is a contentious issue between Washington and Moscow, but recent signs of a more ambitious Iranian nuclear agenda have intensified U.S. concern.

In early February, the Iranian government made a surprising, public declaration about its nuclear fuel activities. President Khatami announced that Iran had started mining uranium outside the city of Yazd and planned to convert the ore into fuel. A day later, Aghazadeh said Iran was embarking on an ambitious nuclear energy program and was close to processing uranium.

Those announcements worried the Bush administration enough that a top U.S. arms control official, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, is expected to travel to Moscow today to urge Russian officials to prevent Iran from acquiring full nuclear capability.

Iran is keenly aware that the crisis next door in Iraq has made weapons proliferation a grave concern for the world in general, and the Bush administration in particular. Tehran hopes that fuller cooperation with the IAEA will help alleviate Washington's suspicions.

"If a country has any doubt about Iran's nuclear programs, it should go to the agency rather than slandering Iran," Aghazadeh said.

For the last several years, the assessment of Western intelligence agencies has been that Iran is three to five years away from developing a nuclear weapon. But some European diplomats believe that years of Russian assistance have led to a significant evolution in Iran's nuclear operations.

"Now Iran is closer to having an indigenous ability to develop a weapon on its own," said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran.

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