The UN's chief nuclear inspector applauded Barack Obama for extending an olive branch to Iran, calling the US president's offer of diplomacy an important gesture toward resolving Iran's dispute with the West over its nuclear program. "Obama is talking about direct negotiation without preconditions based on mutual respect, and he's extended his hand to the Iranian people," International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Tuesday in Ecuador. "I hope it's reciprocated by the Iranian people." Obama last week signaled a willingness to speak directly with Iran about the nuclear dispute, promising an "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" in a video message marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year. "This is very important," ElBaradei said in Quito, where he discussed nuclear energy issues with Vice President Lenin Moreno. "This situation must be resolved." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say over Iranian policy decisions, responded to Obama by saying that Tehran would wait to see concrete changes in American foreign policy before reconsidering its approach to the US. The US, UN, IAEA and several European countries have pushed Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iran is enriching uranium that it says it wants only as nuclear fuel. Critics fear it could be used in nuclear weapons. ElBaradei meanwhile said the IAEA will help Ecuador explore for uranium and study the possibility of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. A statement from Ecuador's government said the UN agency had approved seven projects for 2009-2011, committing technical cooperation worth $1.1 million in an effort to increase the use of nuclear technology in medicine, agriculture and other fields. Ecuadorean officials say uranium may exist in the Andean nation's south.

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