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"We see a deteriorating situation, a move toward confrontation" with Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei warned Thursday, speaking of international efforts to curtail Teheran's uranium enrichment program.
He called on all parties to "create conditions that would lead to negotiations," including an Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment and a commitment on the part of the international community to join in "comprehensive dialogue" with the Iranian government.
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ElBaradei was speaking in Luxembourg at the International Conference on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.
He also insisted he had been misunderstood when he seemed to suggest last week that Iran should be allowed to maintain a small uranium enrichment program. "I have not suggested that Iran should keep centrifuges," ElBaradei told reporters at the conference, which is chaired by Russian-Israeli industrialist Viatcheslav Kantor.
ElBaradei said he had merely wanted to alert the world that Iran was increasing its capabilities. American, French, German and British diplomats had complained about ElBaradei's suggestion, saying he was "weak" on getting Teheran to disarm.
On Wednesday, the IAEA released a report saying Iran was continuing to develop its nuclear fuel enrichment program, and that the agency's knowledge of the program was shrinking due to Iranian noncompliance with IAEA verification demands.
"We are moving toward Iran building [nuclear] capacity and knowledge, without [the IAEA] in a position to verify the nature or scope of that program," ElBaradei said.
According to ElBaradei and the IAEA report, Iran has already discovered how to enrich nuclear fuel, an expertise that the international community had hoped to deny the country. The watchdog agency's report further said Teheran was operating 1,312 centrifuges, with 656 more being assembled.
Bush administration officials promised on Thursday they would use the report to push for greater sanctions on Iran.
ElBaradei said he agreed with CIA estimates that Iran was three to eight years away from the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
"Even if Iran wanted to go to nuclear weapons, it would not be before the end of this decade or sometime in the middle of the next," he said.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to push ahead with his country's nuclear program, saying the West was trying to prevent Iran from emerging as a world power.
In a speech to a gathering of Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad ruled out any temporary suspension, saying, "If we stop for a while, they [Iran's enemies] will achieve their goals. The enemy wants Iran to surrender so it won't have any say in the world."
"Unless Iran addresses the long outstanding verification issues," read the report, "the agency will not be able to fully reconstruct the history of Iran's nuclear program and provide assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear... activities in Iran or about the exclusively peaceful nature of that program."
"The aim of the enemies in thwarting Iran's exploitation of peaceful nuclear technology is not based on any technical reasons. They want to hit at the source of the [Iranian] regime's progress," he said, according to state-run television.