VIENNA, Austria – Delegates at a key U.N. (search) meeting moved close to agreement Friday on how to deal with illicit past South Korean plutonium and uranium experiments but continued to wrestle with a stubborn dispute over Iran's interpretation of a freeze on uranium enrichment (search).
Hossein Mousavian, the chief Iranian delegate to the board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), told The Associated Press that his country was "committed" to the freeze.
But differences over what that meant threatened to scuttle the enrichment suspension deal — and increase sentiment for a referral of Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council.
The issue of Iran threatened to drag on into the weekend, which would force an extension of the International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting past its planned close Friday.
A report summarizing 11/2 years of IAEA investigations says the agency remains unable to determine if nearly two decades of Iranian nuclear activities were purely peaceful or if the government had a secret weapons agenda.
But the main issue is Iran's interpretation of its deal with the European Union to freeze all activities linked to uranium enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the material for the core of atomic warheads.
Diplomats said Iran continued to demand on Friday that it be allowed to operate 20 centrifuges — although the EU says the Nov. 7 deal mandates a suspension of all activities related to enrichment, including running the centrifuges, which spin gas into fuel-level or weapons-grade uranium.
One of the delegates described Iran's move as an attempt at arm twisting to wrest concessions on the language of a resolution on how to police the freeze. Tehran wants any text stripped of indirect allusions to a "trigger mechanism" that would enable the board to ask the U.N. Security Council to deal with violations of the suspension pledge.
IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei also suggested the two issues were linked, telling reporters he hoped the Iranians would reconsider "once they get an agreed resolution."
"I'm optimistic things are moving in the right direction," he said as the meeting reconvened.
Mousavian, the chief Iranian delegate, said his country "is committed to suspension" as he headed into a meeting with EU negotiators. Asked about the terms, he said, "That's what we need to talk about."
Afterward, he spelled out what Iran wanted in the resolution: a commitment to close Iran's nuclear file at the IAEA; no "trigger mechanism" and no "special" policing of the country's nuclear activities.
Describing the deadlock over the 20 centrifuges as "not an important issue," he said negotiations would continue with the IAEA and the EU.
Iran's demands did not signal an immediate danger because thousands of centrifuges must operate for months to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead.
The Europeans say the deal committed Iran to full suspension of enrichment and all related activities while the two sides discuss a pact meant to provide Iran with EU technical and economic aid and other concessions.
The proposed deal also commits Iran to a pledge not to reprocess plutonium — which it would be able to do in several years time, once it completes work on a heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.
With the EU deal envisaging a light-water reactor for Iran — from which extraction of weapons-grade nuclear material is difficult — diplomats said the Europeans hoped Iran would not complete its heavy water facility.
On the issue of South Korea, delegates said the overwhelming sentiment was to issue a statement of rebuke over the experiments, which produced minute amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
The delegates from Europe and Asia, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the statement could stop short of letting Seoul off the hook by holding out the implicit threat of being referred to the U.N. Security Council should ongoing IAEA investigations reveal new, serious contraventions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
While the IAEA viewed the South Korean violations as "a matter of serious concern. ... we are also saying that we have not seen any continuation of these experiments," ElBaradei said at the start of the meeting Thursday.
Y.J Choi, South Korea's deputy foreign minister, told the board scientists involved in the experiments did not notify the government.
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APTV 11-26-04 0637EST