(photo credit: AP [file])
The chief UN nuclear inspector responded to US criticism on Friday, saying detractors were not giving attempts to get Iran to come clean on past nuclear activities a chance to work.
Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also urged both Iran and the US-led camp pushing for new Security Council sanctions over Teheran's nuclear defiance to agree to a time-out to cool passions and pave the way for a return to negotiations.
He spoke to reporters amid what diplomats accredited to his agency described as sustained US pressure on him over a recently drawn up IAEA-Iran working plan committing Teheran to fully clear up its past nuclear activities by year's end.
"We were criticized for refusing to accept 'yes' as an answer, which I thought was a bit disingenuous," he said, alluding to suggestions that Iran was using the work plan as a smoke screen while continuing uranium enrichment despite a Security Council ban.
"For the last few years, we have been told by the Security Council ... that we needed to clarify the outstanding issues," he said. "We obviously had to welcome" Teheran's decision to cooperate with the agency, he added.
In the plan, agreed to between the two sides in July, Iran agreed to answer questions from agency experts by December on more than two decades of nuclear activity - most of it secret until revealed over four years ago.
The plan, which was made public last month, appeared to give Iran a clean bill of health on past small-scale plutonium experiments. It also noted cooperation on other issues, while specifying that Teheran still needed to satisfy the agency's curiosity about its enrichment technology and traces of highly enriched uranium at a facility linked to the military.
The plan - which forms the backbone of an IAEA report to be debated at a 35-nation board meeting of the agency that opens Monday - also said Iran agreed to study documentation from the agency on the "Green Salt Project," which the US alleges links diverse components of a nuclear weapons program, including uranium enrichment, high explosives testing and a missile re-entry vehicle.
Diplomats told the AP last year that the agency was made aware of the alleged program by US intelligence.
While agency officials have welcomed indications that Iran is now willing to cooperate on questions it has raised concerns in Washington. A US official who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, recently described the plan as a "charm offensive" meant to deflect attention away from Teheran's continued refusal to stop enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear arms.
Such fears appear well-founded. Although US officials have for months said new sanctions against Iran are needed, there has been no Security Council action beyond informal discussions of Western drafts. Diplomats accredited to the agency have told the AP that Russia and China - traditional opponents of new sanctions - have let it be known that they would not consider UN punishments until seeing how the Iran-IAEA cooperation plan played out.
Washington and its closest allies called for new sanctions as recently as July 30, when the IAEA reported "significant" progress in clearing up past questions about Iran.
US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the international community would "continue to ratchet up the pressure," while French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani declared that without an enrichment freeze, Paris will "pursue ... looking into a third sanctions resolution."
The US also faults the plan for its "conditionality" - committing Iran to answer some questions only after there is agreement with the agency on others; for establishing a time table that US officials feel could be exploited by Iran to stall; and for language that could be interpreted as closing Teheran's nuclear dossier once past activities now under the magnifying glass are answered.
But ElBaradei disagreed, criticizing those "(who) do not necessarily understand the process" - comments that appeared to be directed at US criticism in general, including recent adverse newspaper editorial comment.
"We have a timeline which would enable us by ... December to check clearly whether Iran is ready to work with us in good faith or whether (as) some like to suspect, Iran is buying time, he said.
"This is a reasonable time in our view to resolve a number of complex issues," he said, adding that - contrary to some interpretations - his agency had leverage to reopen any issue, should new questions arise.
Alluding to the US position that all options, including military action against Iran remain on the table, ElBaradei warned against rhetoric that is "a reminder of pre-war Iraq."
"We have not seen any weaponization of their program, nor have we received any information to that effect - no smoking gun or information from intelligence," he said. "Based on the evidence, we have, we do not see ... a clear and present danger that requires that you go beyond diplomacy."
As such, said ElBaradei, a "freeze" or "time-out" was needed with Iran stopping or scrapping its enrichment activities and the Security Council desisting from new sanctions or lifting those now in place - confidence building measures leading to renewed negotiations instead of building confrontation.