VIENNA – The chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Monday he cannot confirm all of Iran's nuclear activities are peaceful, carefully choosing his words after tensions were sparked by his recent suggestion that Tehran may be working on a secret arms program.
Members of the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency board were closely following IAEA head Yukiya Amano's statement opening the March board session to see if he would follow up on his hard-hitting Iran report issued last week.
In that document, Amano — who took the post in December — expressed concern that Iran may be working on making a nuclear warhead, suggesting for the first time that Tehran had either resumed such work or never stopped at the time U.S. intelligence thought it did.
Iran denies any interest in developing nuclear arms, contradicting a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment concluding that Iran had worked on such weapons before apparently suspending such activities in 2003. Amano's report, in contrast, suggested Iran never froze its experiments, expressing "concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."
The Japanese diplomat was more circumspect in his comments Monday, devoting only four paragraphs to Iran in eight pages of comments. His assessment that the agency "cannot confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities" was notably less forceful than the central finding of his report.
The careful wording was reminiscent of language used by Amano's predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei. The Egyptian diplomat was occasionally accused by the West of being too soft on Iran.
A diplomat from one of the board member countries said Amano was clearly attempting to defuse passions generated by his report and seeking to head off potential confrontation with Iran's allies on the board — nonaligned nations that Tehran counts upon for support.
These nations — who make up about a third of the board — traditionally blame the U.S. and other Western nations accusing Iran of harboring secret weapons ambitions of making unsubstantiated accusations. Beyond that, they are traditionally suspicious of what they see as attempts by developed nations to block them from acquiring peaceful nuclear technological know-how and back Tehran when it depicts itself as a victim of such endeavors.
Such sentiments were reflected in a confidential statement from developing nations prepared for delivery later in the week at the board session and made available to The Associated Press.
"States' choices and decision, including those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear technology ... must be respected," said the statement.
Directly criticizing Amano's choice of words in his report, the statement noted "with concern the possible implications of the departure" of previous report language. The diplomat said the phrasing indicated that developed nations were suggesting that the tone of the report from Amano was at least in part not objective.
It took three rounds of elections last year for Amano to prevail upon another contender backed by most developing nations, reflecting the persistent North-South divide that frequently bedevils attempts to reach consensus at board meetings.
Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze uranium enrichment — a potential pathway to nuclear weapons — and other activities generating concerns that it seeks to make fissile warhead material. It insists, however, that it is enriching only to make nuclear fuel for an envisaged reactor network and denies allegations that it wants atomic arms.