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Iran to settle atom inquiry issues within month-IAEA

VIENNA - Iran agreed to answer remaining questions about its past covert nuclear activities within a month during talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency chief, the U.N. watchdog said on Sunday.

For the first time, Tehran also gave Mohamed ElBaradei information about its work to develop an advanced centrifuge able to enrich uranium much faster than the old breakdown-prone model it uses now, the IAEA said.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed Elbaradei speaks with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while attending an official meeting in Tehran January 12, 2008. (REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)

There was no sign Iran had budged from its refusal to suspend enrichment or end curbs on IAEA inspections, steps Western powers say would do more to defuse a standoff over the Islamic republic's nuclear activity.

ElBaradei met Iranian leaders over two days last week to push for swifter cooperation to wrap up a long-running IAEA inquiry into the past and shed light on Iran's current programme, which the West suspects will yield atom bombs.

Iran says it wants to refine uranium only for electricity.

ElBaradei is anxious to see a standoff between Iran and Western powers over its nuclear ambitions settled peacefully, a concern underscored by a U.S.-Iranian naval incident in the Gulf a week ago which has fanned tensions.

After years of stonewalling that helped lead to U.N. sanctions, Iran agreed in August to clarify questions about its nuclear past, a process called the "work plan", within months.

An end-of-year target passed with issues still open. But the IAEA said the Tehran talks yielded an Iranian commitment to settle all issues in time for ElBaradei's next Iran report to a meeting of the agency's 35-nation board in early March.

"Agreement was reached on the timeline for implementation of all remaining verification issues specified in the work plan. According to the agreed schedule, implementation ... should be completed in the next four weeks," the IAEA statement said.

A diplomat close to the IAEA said ahead of ElBaradei's visit that the agency inquiry had entered a final phase with Iran addressing U.S. intelligence given to U.N. inspectors about past attempts to "weaponise" atomic material.

The diplomat said on Sunday the Tehran talks result was "positive, constructive and substantive" enough for the IAEA to reverse plans not to issue a statement afterwards.

"Iran is prepared to remove all outstanding ambiguities by March," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a news conference in Tehran on Sunday.


Western diplomats had feared Iran would lose motivation to complete the "work plan" after a threat of tougher U.N. sanctions faded following a U.S. intelligence report saying Tehran had stopped an active nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

The report also said Iran was still striving to develop enrichment abilities that could be militarised later but many analysts said it weakened political restraints on the programme.

Western diplomats reserved judgment on ElBaradei's talks. Some said Iran did not need another month to come clean.

"This is a disappointing result. We were told the issues would be settled by November, then December, and now we're told sometime in February," said a European Union diplomat.

"Iran has known what it needs to do for some time. There's no excuse for any further delay," he told Reuters.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Iran must still suspend its enrichment activity. "Another declaration is no substitute for complying with the U.N. sanctions," he said.

ElBaradei also tried to impress on Iran the need to permit wider inspections and show that it is enriching uranium only as an alternative to its oil and gas reserves.

To that end, the statement said: "Iran also provided information on its research and development activities on a new generation of centrifuges."

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