By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - It is unclear if Iran's nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, but there is still no firm evidence that Tehran is secretly developing atomic weapons as Washington asserts, the U.N. nuclear watchdog says.
"Have we seen any proof of a weapons programme (in Iran)? Have we seen undeclared (uranium) enrichment? ... Obviously until today there is none of that," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters on Tuesday before entering a closed-door session of the IAEA board of governors.
"But are we in a position to say that everything is peaceful? Obviously we are not at this stage," he said, summing up a two-year IAEA investigation of Tehran's atomic programme.
Although ElBaradei's inspectors have uncovered many potentially arms-related activities in Iran, it has found no "smoking gun" to back U.S. charges of a covert bomb programme.
One of the main items on the board's agenda this week is a resolution on Iran's nuclear programme drafted by Germany, France and Britain calling for the IAEA board to make a "final determination" about Iran in November.
Washington hopes this will lead to a U.N. Security Council report and possibly economic sanctions, while Iran hopes it will bring an acquittal and an end to the U.N. inspection process.
ElBaradei hopes the resolution will prod not only Iran but other countries to improve co-operation with the IAEA.
"It is important to acknowledge progress and say that we would like to see accelerated co-operation by Iran (and) by the countries that have been involved," he said in a clear reference to Pakistan, which provided much of Tehran's previously secret uranium enrichment technology.
IRAN READY FOR NOVEMBER SHOWDOWN
ElBaradei said there was no guarantee he will be able to complete his investigation by November. But the Iranians made it clear that they would like to see an end to his probe of their nuclear programme, which they say is entirely peaceful.
Iran's chief delegate at this week's IAEA meeting, Hossein Mousavian, told Reuters that Tehran wanted to bring the stand-off over its nuclear programme to a head in November.
"We have nothing against serious dialogue aimed at providing assurances that Iran's nuclear programme will never, never be diverted to military purposes," Mousavian said in an interview.
Mousavian was confident Iran would be cleared of the U.S. charges, which carry with them the threat of U.N. sanctions.
Washington is pressing the Europeans to include some kind of clear "trigger mechanism" to send Iran to the Security Council.
While the Europeans resist the idea of an automatic trigger that would lock them into a specific course of action, they have accepted a U.S. proposal to include an October 31 deadline for Iran to dispel doubts about its nuclear programme, diplomats said.
Iran has been negotiating with France, Britain and Germany since October 2003, when Tehran promised to suspend its uranium enrichment programme in exchange for a wide range of "carrots", including non-military nuclear and other technology and a guarantee that it could keep a peaceful atomic programme.
But Iran never fully suspended the programme, and Mousavian took a defiant public stance against the European trio on Monday, saying Tehran would begin enriching uranium very soon.
However, diplomats said Iran and the EU trio were quietly negotiating behind the scenes and would soon announce a more comprehensive suspension of Iran's enrichment programme that would include not just enrichment, but the production, assembly and testing of centrifuges used in the enrichment process.