VIENNA, Austria (AP) — The U.N. atomic agency has identified Russia, China and Pakistan as among the probable suppliers of equipment Iran used to conduct suspected nuclear weapons programs, diplomats said Thursday.
The diplomats spoke to The Associated Press as the International Atomic Energy Agency weighed how harshly to censure Tehran for two decades of covert nuclear activities Iran says were aimed at peaceful purposes.
The IAEA's 35-nation board is debating the wording of a resolution that would satisfy both U.S. calls for strong condemnation of Iran's past cover-ups and European desires to keep Iran cooperating by focusing on its recent openness.
Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, said agency delegates were discussing a "quite strong" resolution. The talks, which broke off Thursday after less than two hours, are to continue Friday.
While Iran has acknowledged nearly two decades of concealment, it has recently begun cooperating with the agency in response to international pressure. To that end, it has suspended uranium enrichment — an activity that has raised U.S. suspicions of a nuclear weapons agenda.
Iran says it enriched uranium only to produce power. While admitting that some of its enrichment equipment had traces of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, it insists those traces were inadvertently imported on material it purchased abroad.
However, Tehran says it cannot identify the countries of origin because it bought the centrifuges and laser enrichment equipment through third parties.
The Vienna-based IAEA must know where the equipment came from if it is to ascertain whether Iran is telling the truth about the source of trace uranium.
The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say how the agency established the probable origin of the equipment.
Pakistan, suspected from the start, has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Russia likewise denied that it was a willing participant in providing enrichment technology to Iran for the purpose of a nuclear weapons program.
Nikolai Shingaryov, chief spokesman for the Nuclear Power Ministry, told AP on Thursday that Russia signed a contract with Iran in the mid-1990s to deliver equipment that could be used for laser enrichment of uranium.
Moscow canceled the contract several years later in response to U.S. pressure, and the equipment, still in the experimental phase, "never reached Iran in full," he said.
A senior diplomat said Thursday's meeting was adjourned on Iran's request but that European nations and the United States were taking advantage of the break to bridge their rift on a resolution censuring Iran's past transgression while recognizing its new openness.
Reflecting the seriousness of the divide, President Bush was expected to take up the issue with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his trip to London this week.
A senior diplomat said the Europeans were "now talking breaches of Iran's obligations to comply with safeguards agreements" that comprise part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Such language would be more acceptable to the "Gang of Four" — the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan — who had held out for stronger wording, said the diplomat.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters that Washington sought "firm action" from the board.
"We expect the board … to find that Iran has been in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement and to report that noncompliance to the Security Council," he said.
In reality, diplomats at the Vienna meeting said the United States would likely settle for less — toughed-up language in a revised draft but no direct mention of the Security Council, which carries with it the implicit threat of sanctions.
Quoting from the still-evolving draft, another diplomat told AP the text welcomed Iran's recent cooperation and said the board "is operating on the assumption" that Tehran is giving the agency a "correct, full and final picture of Iran's past and present nuclear program."
But it also stated that the board "deplores past breaches of …(Iran's) obligations" to comply with IAEA safeguards meant to prevent nonproliferation and "calls upon Iran to adhere strictly to the terms of its safeguard agreement in both letter and spirit."
Under the stronger draft, the board reserves the right to immediately call an emergency session should any evidence surface that Iran was guilty of "significant failures."
The board would then "decide upon measures to be taken," the document says, shorthand for possible Security Council involvement.
Opening Thursday's meeting, ElBaradei said agency doesn't know if Iran has tried to build nuclear weapons. That, ElBaradei told the board, "will take some time and much verification effort."
Characterizing Iran's recent cooperation as "very encouraging," he said he expected the agency's board to address "the bad news and the good news," in the resolution.
"The bad news is that there have been failures and breaches. The good news is that there has been a new chapter in cooperation," he said.
— Arizona Daily Sun