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. UN atomic agency in forefront of non-proliferation fight in 2004
VIENNA (AFP) Dec 19, 2004
In a year 2004 that saw the very foundations of the world's non-proliferation regime tested, the UN atomic agency battled to ensure Iran was not developing nuclear weapons while trying in vain to get inspectors back into Iraq and North Korea.

It was a high-profile year for International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who campaigned for a strengthening of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which mandates the IAEA's work verifying international atomic safeguards.

The spotlight was on Iran, which the IAEA has been investigating for two years and which the United States has alleged was part of "an axis of evil" and hiding nuclear weapons development.

Tehran denies the charge, saying its atomic program is a peaceful effort to develop nuclear power for electricity.

But the IAEA documented in 2004 continuing gaps in Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities, including work on sophisticated centrifuges for enriching uranium, althoguh ElBaradei acknowledged the "jury is still out" on whether Tehran has a covert weapons program.

The year began with the unraveling of a deal Britain, France and Germany, had struck with Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, a key part of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The year ended with the confidence-building deal patched back together, and endorsed by the IAEA at a meeting of its 35-nation board of governors in Vienna in November.

This left the European trio and Iran free to embark in December on negotiations on a long-term agreement setting out rewards for Tehran in return for a full suspension of uranium enrichment, the process which makes nuclear fuel for civilian power reactors, but which in a highly refined form could also be used as the explosive core of atomic bombs.

But the United States, which lobbied unsuccessfully in 2004 for the IAEA to take Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, remained sceptical that Tehran was coming clean even if Washington, burdened by the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, took a back seat and gave the European negotiations a chance.

Diplomats said however the talks could not succeed unless Washington eventually takes part, since Iran cannot get rewards such as joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) or receiving regional security guarantees without US support.

In a sign of continuing concern about Iran's intentions, diplomats close to the IAEA said in December that Tehran was conducting secret high-energy neutron experiments, allegedly taking place under military supervision, that could be destined for civilian purposes or aimed at making nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei also campaigned in 2004 to fix a loophole in the NPT which does not ban enriching uranium, for example.

He said in March after talks with US President George W. Bush: "The important thing is to try to see how we can move the agenda of the non-proliferation regime forward."

ElBaradei wants to eliminate the danger that nuclear fuel declared for peaceful uses could also be used to make atomic bombs by having a multilateral body make the fuel, rather than letting individual states do it.

ElBaradei said in Geneva in October that tighter global controls on the export of nuclear material and technology must be included in a bolstered NPT up for debate in 2005, particularly after revelations about a nuclear smuggling network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb.

ElBaradei also said no country should be allowed to bow out of the NPT "without clear consequences" before the UN Security Council.

North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors and withdrew from the NPT in 2003 after it revived the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, marking the first time any country has withdrawn from a multilateral arms control treaty.

North Korea now claims it has made several atomic bombs.

The IAEA wants to return its inspectors to North Korea and also to Iraq, where they have not been allowed since the US invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.

The IAEA was more successful in 2004 in Libya, where it oversaw the nuclear side of Libya's dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction programs, under an agreement Tripoli reached in December 2003 with the US and Britain.

Meanwhile, ElBaradei will be trying in 2005 to get a third four-year-term as IAEA chief, but the United States opposes this.

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