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UN inspectors to visit suspect Iranian site

Tehran grants access to watchdog agency

VIENNA -- Iran has agreed to grant access to a military site the United States links to a secret nuclear weapons program and the first UN inspectors could arrive "within days," the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said yesterday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Mohamed ElBaradei criticized the reported US bugging of his phone conversations, saying such actions cripple his agency's ability to act independently of national agendas.

ElBaradei also suggested the time was approaching to wind down 2 years of intense focus on Iran's activities and treat Tehran as just another IAEA member.

The UN nuclear watchdog agency has been pressing Tehran for months to be allowed to inspect the Parchin military complex, used by the Iranians to research, develop, and produce ammunition, missiles, and high explosives. Yesterday, he said IAEA experts could be in Parchin "within days or weeks."

In leaks to media last year, US intelligence officials said that a specially secured site on the Parchin complex, 20 miles southeast of Tehran, may be used in research on making high-explosive components for use in nuclear weapons.

The IAEA has not found any firm evidence to challenge Iranian assertions that its military is not involved in nuclear activities. But an IAEA report in October expressed concern about published intelligence and media reports "relating to dual use equipment and materials which have applications . . . in the nuclear military area."

Diplomats accredited to the agency said that phrasing alluded to Parchin.

Iran has been the main focus of the IAEA since mid-2002, after revelations of two secret nuclear facilities: a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant near Arak.

That led to a subsequent IAEA investigation of what turned out to be nearly two decades of covert nuclear activities, including suspicious "dual use" experiments that can be linked to weapons programs and a large-scale uranium enrichment program.

As part of his probe, ElBaradei has produced a series of reports detailing the progress of investigations for guidance by the IAEA board on deciding what to do about Iran's nuclear activities. But he has stopped short of declaring Tehran in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

That has fed US frustrations. Insisting that Iran has violated the treaty, Washington repeatedly has urged the board to ask the UN Security Council to take Tehran to task. Senior US officials have blamed ElBaradei for the board's refusal to do so, suggesting he is too soft on Iran and that they will fight his efforts to gain reelection this year for a third term as IAEA head.

As part of US efforts to oust ElBaradei, his telephone conversations were allegedly bugged in what the media recently reported were attempts to prove favoritism toward Iran.

The White House has refused to comment on the report that the United States had spied on ElBaradei.

ElBaradei said any such action "interferes with my basic human right to privacy -- but more importantly it interferes in our ability to work in an independent manner."

He said he will "continue to keep the board updated" on Iran. But he said he may not produce a new report on Tehran's nuclear activities for the next board meeting in March, adding that he hoped to reduce the Iran file to "routine reporting" over the next six months.

Such steps would effectively suggest the probe of Tehran's nuclear activities was no longer important enough to warrant special consideration.

ElBaradei's agency was monitoring an Iranian commitment made in November to suspend uranium enrichment activities that could be used to make the core for nuclear weapons. He said yesterday that agreement had not been violated.

ElBaradei declined to comment directly on reports that Egyptian scientists experimented with small amounts of uranium compounds that could be used in a nuclear weapons program.

But he suggested his agency did not view Egypt as violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, saying "any [such] proliferation concern or any implication of a weapons program" would be reported to the IAEA board of governors.

Egypt's government rejected assertions it has been pursuing a weapons program, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

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