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Iran delays UN nuclear inspections

Agency's probe of atomic secrets put off to late April

VIENNA -- Iran abruptly canceled further inspections by a United Nations agency until late April, throwing into turmoil international attempts to verify Iran's assertions that it was not trying to build nuclear weapons, diplomats said yesterday.

The move was downplayed by Iranian representatives, but diplomats familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the cancellation would freeze the probe into Tehran's past and present nuclear secrets.

The inspectors were to be in Iran next week as part of the UN agency's examination of Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and other countries say is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

Earlier, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, Pirooz Hosseini, told a reporter the inspections would be postponed because they conflicted with next week's celebration of the Iranian New Year. Asked why the celebrations were not taken into account when the invitations were first issued, Hosseini said officials made "a simple mistake."

The IAEA declined to comment, but diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran seemed to be trying to force concessions over an agency resolution addressing Tehran's spotty record of disclosing past nuclear secrets and cooperating with the IAEA probe.

Iran, which says its nuclear intentions are peaceful, has threatened repeatedly over the past few days to reduce cooperation with the IAEA if its 35-nation board of governors comes down hard on the Islamic republic.

A US official said the cancellation alarmed IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei, who had planned to put the new findings of his inspectors into a report by the end of May for the board's June meeting.

In Washington, David Albright, a former Iraq nuclear inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security, said Iran would be violating the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by declining to consent to IAEA inspections. "If Iran doesn't let the inspectors in, it will have to go before the [UN] Security Council," Albright said. On Thursday, the nonaligned bloc at the board of governors watered down a draft resolution backed by the United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries. The Western group then rejected the draft as being too gentle on Iran.

The deadlock left Australian, Canadian, and Irish diplomats shuttling between US and nonaligned representatives trying to bridge the differences. A Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity that US patience was wearing thin.

Another diplomat said the United States and the Europeans considered the nonaligned modifications unacceptable because they did not sufficiently criticize Iran's record on nuclear openness.

Recent discoveries by IAEA inspectors of undeclared items and programs have cast doubt on Tehran's assertions that it has no more nuclear secrets.

An IAEA report last month accused Tehran of hiding evidence of nuclear experiments and noted the discovery of traces of radioactive polonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons. The report also expressed concern about the discovery of a previously undisclosed, advanced P-2 centrifuge system for processing uranium.

Iran says its enrichment plans are geared only toward generating power. On Wednesday, Iran announced plans to resume enrichment.

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