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US seeks backing on Iran nuclear issue

VIENNA -- The United States and its allies lobbied a key UN atomic agency conference yesterday to join them in calling on Iran to prove it is not running a covert nuclear weapons program.

At unofficial evening meetings, allies Canada and Britain were sounding out other nations on a resolution that would call on Iran to provide full disclosure of its programs.

But Iran's chief delegate, Ali Akbar Salehi, cautioned that too much pressure could backfire.

Iran has hinted it may sign a protocol opening its nuclear programs to full and unfettered inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, Salehi said that hinges on the outcome of the meeting in Vienna of the atomic agency's board of governors.

Earlier he warned of "unexpected or surprising consequences" if board members demanded too much from his country.

Opening the conference of the 35-nation board, the atomic agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Iran has been showing increased cooperation. He also said his specialists still don't have enough information to determine the nature of Tehran's nuclear activities.

The United States suspects Iran of working on a secret nuclear weapons program. A recent atomic agency report to the board, obtained by the Associated Press, said traces of highly enriched uranium were found at an Iranian nuclear facility. The report also said Iran was conducting tests that specialists say make little sense unless the country is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Tehran insists its nuclear programs are only for generating electricity. It has also said its equipment was "contaminated" with enriched uranium by a previous owner.

Last week the Bush administration decided not to ask the Vienna meeting to endorse a resolution finding Iran in noncompliance of the atomic agency's obligations -- a conclusion that would have brought the matter to the UN Security Council.

"There was no other choice but to back down, because that proposal didn't have many countries to go along with it," Salehi said.

Instead, diplomats said, Canada and Britain were speaking with other board member nations on a resolution that would call on Iran to answer questions raised in the report and provide full disclosure of its programs. It also could set a deadline for Tehran to comply, the diplomats said.

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