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. Iran backs ElBaradei as nuclear watchdog chief
TEHRAN (AFP) Jun 12, 2005
Iran has for the first time expressed its support for the re-election of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed ElBaradei, hailing what it said was a "consensus" against the United States.

"We hope that he is elected again because there is a consensus about him and America has been isolated," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters.

Since February 2003, ElBaradei has been leading a probe of Iran's nuclear programme, and Tehran was subsequently forced to acknowledged it had hidden its sensitive activities from the UN's nuclear watchdog for close to two decades.

ElBaradei, 62, has said the "jury is still out" on whether Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, resisting pressure from the United States which insists the country has been using an atomic energy drive as a cover for weapons development.

Last week the United States removed its opposition to the former Egyptian diplomat and said it was ready to accept a third term for him despite past policy disagreements over both Iraq's and Iran's nuclear programmes.

Iran says it has since November suspended uranium enrichment activities towards making fuel for civilian nuclear power plants.

Critics of Iran's nuclear intentions say the suspension is necessary because the same enrichment process could also lead to the explosive core of nuclear bombs.

Talks with Britain, France and Germany opened in December with a focus on Tehran guaranteeing its nuclear programme is peaceful in return for trade, security and technology benefits.

At an IAEA meeting this week, ElBaradei is due to release a new report on how Iran is cooperating with the agency.

IAEA inspectors who recently visited a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and an underground uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

Natanz is at the centre of international concerns, because Iran wants to produce nuclear fuel there by using centrifuges, the same process that can also be used to make highly enriched uranium for weapons.

Iranian officials said the visits allowed the inspectors to see that Iran is honoring its pledge to suspend of nuclear fuel activities.

"They were in Natanz for three days, they saw everything, we are not hiding anything," Asefi told reporters.

"Different reports recognise that (Iran's nuclear programme) has not been diverted from its peaceful purpose," he said.

Iran and Europe agreed to give themselves breathing space in their negotiations after a high-level meeting in Geneva last month, and the diplomatic process has effectively been put on hold until after the June 17 presidential election.

"The Europeans said for the first time that they were ready to make concrete proposals, which is not possible in a few days or a week," Asefi said, justifying Iran's decision to back away from its threat to resume nuclear work.

"They need time and they need to harmonise things," he said of the EU-3. "We hope the Europeans will not try to exploit our goodwill and our discretion."

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