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Iran's nuclear threat is deemphasized

UN official notes lack of evidence

VIENNA -- The director of the UN agency responsible for investigating Iran's nuclear program said yesterday that there have been no new discoveries in the last six months to substantiate claims that the Islamic state is secretly working toward a nuclear bomb.

In a wide-ranging interview with four US newspapers, Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency also described White House policies on Iran and North Korea as inconsistent. Without greater US participation in diplomacy, ElBaradei said, confrontation could increase.

''North Korea and Iran are still the two 800-pound gorillas in the room and not much is happening," he said.

US officials have attended joint meetings with the North Koreans and envoys from four other countries, but the talks have produced little and have been on hold for almost eight months. The White House has said repeatedly that it wants those talks to resume but recently ruled out a similar arrangement with Iran, arguing that it didn't want to legitimize the country's ruling clerics.

''I don't see talking to a regime as legitimization," ElBaradei said. ''They talk to North Korea and I don't think that legitimizes the North Korean regime."

He praised France, Britain, and Germany for entering into negotiations with Iran that have led it to suspend nuclear activities, such as uranium enrichment, that can be used in a weapons program. ''If I look at the big picture," he said, ''there is no enrichment in Iran and this is quite satisfactory, and I hope it keeps this way until we reach an agreement" for a permanent stop.

ElBaradei, 62, an international lawyer and Egyptian diplomat, has been at odds with the Bush administration since he challenged US intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

His caution on Iran has led some Bush administration officials to suggest he is more interested in blocking US policy than in stopping Iran. The White House wants him to step down when he finishes his second term this summer and has tried to find a candidate willing to challenge him.

But a majority of countries on the IAEA board consider ElBaradei's leadership on Iran helpful and want him to take a third term.

Despite tensions with Washington, ElBaradei said professional relations with US officials have been good. ''I would hope we would continue to cooperate no matter what," he said. ElBaradei was joined in the interview by top aides from the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada.

During a two-year investigation, IAEA inspectors uncovered an 18-year-old nuclear program in Iran and chastised the country for failing to report its work and suppliers to the agency, as required under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Bush administration contends the program is designed to build nuclear weapons but Iran says the goal is nuclear energy that will someday substitute for its oil and gas reserves.

ElBaradei's last report on the status of the investigation in November said that Iran's cooperation had improved and that most outstanding issues were resolved. The investigation is continuing. IAEA inspectors are awaiting results from samples taken recently at an Iranian military facility.

Echoing public and private comments from French, German, and British officials, ElBaradei said the only way to end the crisis and avoid confrontation was for the Bush administration to get involved in the talks between the three countries and Iran.

''We have been very active diplomatically, including working with the IAEA, on both Iran and North Korea," a senior Bush administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he had not seen ElBaradei's full comments. ''It is clear that these nations need to take the IAEA more seriously and need to work toward that goal."

Over the past four years ElBaradei has been juggling investigations in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Pakistan. But ElBaradei said North Korea was ''the greatest security challenge" the world faces. ''I am very concerned about the North Korea dialogue right now."

Last week, North Korea announced that it had built nuclear weapons and was suspending participation in the talks.

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