VIENNA, Austria – The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency appealed to Iran (search) to give "credible assurances" of the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities, as the body began a meeting Monday amid worries about the spread of atomic weapons.
With reports that Iran may be trying to develop a nuclear arsenal, along with worries about North Korea (search), experts are questioning whether it's really possible to stop countries -- let alone terrorists -- from acquiring such weapons.
The weeklong meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) began 10 days after an internal report claimed that Iran failed to honor promises to disclose its use of nuclear material. The United States wants the agency to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, appealed to Iran in an opening statement to "provide credible assurances regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities."
"I also continue to call on Iran to permit us to take environmental samples at the particular location where allegations about enrichment activities exist," ElBaradei said. "This is clearly in the interest of both the agency and Iran."
Just before the closed-door meeting began, Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, said he was optimistic the issue would be resolved, but described U.S. pressure as counterproductive.
"It's very obvious that this whole issue has been politically motivated and politically charged," Salehi said.
The U.S. Ambassador to the agency, Kenneth Brill, described the report as "a very serious and sobering report and we have to deal with it."
The meeting comes at a time of growing concern for the control of nuclear material.
"We are at a very important time," said David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert.
"If the nonproliferation regime cannot solve this problem with Iran, I think the nonproliferation treaty will become not irrelevant, but a place where the good guys show that they are good guys -- not a real treaty that can be used to resolve tensions."
Under the treaty, the declared nuclear powers of the 1960s -- the United States, China, France, Russia and Britain -- agreed to reduce their arsenals, ensure that nuclear technology was used only for peaceful purposes, and stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
But the treaty has failed to discourage other nations -- such as India and Pakistan -- from developing nuclear weapons. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear arms, though it is unconfirmed. North Korea is also suspected of developing nuclear weapons.
In comments on North Korea, ElBaradei said he could provide no assurances about the "non-diversion of nuclear material for weapons or other explosive devices." Pyongyang expelled agency experts from the country late last year.
Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed at producing electricity for energy needs as oil supplies wear down.
Suspicion about those claims prompted ElBaradei to tour Iran's nuclear facilities in February. The visit was intended to ensure that Iran's nuclear program was limited to peaceful, civilian purposes and that the facilities were safe.
ElBaradei's tour included a visit to the incomplete nuclear plant in Natanz, about 200 miles south of Tehran. At the time, diplomats said he was taken aback by the advanced stage of a project using hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
A copy of the report that followed, obtained by The Associated Press, indicates that Iran failed to declare the importation of some nuclear material and its subsequent processing. The report said the quantities were not large and the nuclear material would need further processing before it could be used in an explosive device.
But it cautioned that "the number of failures by Iran to report the material, facilities and activities in question in a timely manner as it is obliged to do ... is a matter of concern."
The report also revealed that Iran was building a heavy water production plant. Heavy water is used in nuclear power plants and can provide a method for producing plutonium for use in weapons.
"The Iran regime's nuclear weapons program is very serious and advanced. They want the bomb by 2005," Alireza Jafarzadeh, a Washington-based leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said in a telephone interview Sunday.
"They got this far because of extensive international inattention," Jafarzadeh added. "They behave like outlaws. Those who are monitoring the situation are very concerned about what Iran has."
Washington has begun to pressure Russia to stop exporting advanced nuclear technology to Iran. Russia is helping Iran build a light-water reactor in the southern port city of Bushehr.
The meeting of the 35-nation board is expected to last several days. It was unclear if the agency would issue a statement after the session.