VIENNA -- The International Atomic Energy Agency's board failed Friday to agree on language for a resolution to condemn Iran for concealing its nuclear activities as the top U.S. diplomat and the head of the U.N. watchdog agency traded criticisms.
The United States accused the agency of undercutting its own credibility by denying that it had uncovered evidence that Iran was seeking atomic weapons. "It will take time to overcome the damage caused to the agency's credibility by this highly unfortunate and misleading 'no evidence' turn of phrase," Kenneth Brill, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the board of governors.
The agency's report, leaked to the media this month, said Iran had concealed a uranium enrichment program for 18 years and detailed other instances in which Iran had hidden nuclear activities that it was obligated to report to the agency under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Some of those activities appeared to have the potential to be used to develop nuclear weapons.
However, a key section of the report, which officials said was debated extensively within the IAEA before its completion, said "no evidence" had been found of a weapons program but that the pattern of concealment meant inspectors had more work to do before reaching a final determination.
After Brill's sharp remarks, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the IAEA, took the unusual step of addressing the board personally to respond to the criticism, which he called "disingenuous."
ElBaradei, a former law professor at New York University, said the report used the word "evidence" to mean "proof" -- words that he argued were interchangeable in a legal sense.
"We maintain our credibility by continuing to be impartial and factual," ElBaradei told representatives of the 35 countries on the board.
The remarks came on the second day of debate over how tough the wording should be on a resolution condemning Iran for failing to report all of its nuclear activities.
The Bush administration has accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. A senior Western diplomat said Friday that the U.S. remained convinced that Iran was still operating a covert weapons program under the control of its military.
The U.S. is pushing the IAEA to pass a tough resolution declaring Iran in "noncompliance" with its obligations under the nuclear proliferation treaty, though diplomats said Washington has backed away from efforts to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
A U.S. official said the administration was insisting on tough wording because it feared a weak message could encourage other countries that might be interested in developing nuclear weapons. "The rubber meets the road on the NPT right now," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "People are making calculations on this, people in laboratories."
Britain, France and Germany are leading the effort to draft a more moderate resolution that would recognize Iran's past concealment but would stop short of declaring it in noncompliance.
The dispute marked a rare public disagreement between the United States and Britain. But diplomats said the European countries were concerned that language regarded as too punitive or inflammatory by Iran could end its openness to IAEA inspections and talks with the West.
The three European countries brokered a deal last month in which Iran agreed to come clean on its nuclear program, suspend its enrichment program and accept more intrusive inspections in exchange for access to nuclear technology for its civilian program.
Some smaller European countries as well as other nations represented on the board agreed with the U.S. that the language from the "Big Three" was too weak, but there was disagreement over how tough to be, diplomats said.
The board was scheduled to resume debate Wednesday.
Backroom discussions were expected over the weekend in Vienna and the capitals of the countries involved to come up with language acceptable to both sides by Wednesday. One idea gaining support is to establish a timetable for Iran's acceptance of tougher inspections and dismantling its elements of its nuclear program, several diplomats in Vienna said.
Diplomats said the United States might try to block a resolution that it considered too weak.
"No resolution is better than a bad resolution," said a senior Western diplomat. "We can take the issue up in March after the next report following the aggressive inspection process" now underway.