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. UN nuclear chief attacks hostile US claims on Iran
WASHINGTON, Oct 28 (AFP) Oct 28, 2007
UN atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Sunday he had no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons and accused US leaders of adding "fuel to the fire" with recent bellicose rhetoric.

"We haven't received any information there is a parallel, ongoing, active nuclear weapon program," the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency told CNN.

"Second, even if Iran were to be working on nuclear weapons ... they are at least (a) few years away from having such weapon," he said, citing Washington's own intelligence assessments.

"My fear (is) that if we continue to escalate from both sides that we will end up into a precipice, we will end up into an abyss. The Middle East is in a total mess, to say the least. And we cannot add fuel to the fire."

The White House Friday rejected any parallels between its Iran rhetoric and the run-up to the Iraq war, after fresh sanctions on Tehran and escalating US warnings fueled comparisons to the months before the 2003 invasion.

"We are absolutely committed to a diplomatic process," spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters.

"We would never take options off the table, but the diplomatic process is what we want to move forward with," he said, calling it "unwise" to rule out the use of force.

His comments came as US President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been sharply ramping up their rhetoric about Iran, leading some critics to draw parallels with the late 2002 verbal escalation against Iraq.

In recent months, Bush has predicted "nuclear holocaust" and "World War III" if Tehran gets atomic weapons, while Cheney has warned of "serious consequences" for Iran if it defies global demands to freeze uranium enrichment -- echoing the UN resolution that Washington says authorized war in Iraq.

Iran insists that it is enriching uranium only for nuclear energy and denies US charges that it is seeking the bomb.

ElBaradei has been vindicated in his pre-war belief that Iraq was not resuming its own nuclear arms program, contrary to claims by Bush and Cheney.

However, he said that in the current dispute, "we cannot give Iran a pass right now, because there is still a lot of question marks."

"But have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No."

Merely "exchanging rhetoric" would not resolve the Iranian nuclear case, the IAEA chief said, adding that "the earlier we follow the North Korean model, the better for everybody."

North Korea has already detonated a nuclear device. But under six-nation talks, the Stalinist state has agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for a broad package of economic and diplomatic incentives.

ElBaradei said it is time "to stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue because that's an issue that could have a major conflagration, and not only regionally but globally."

"It could even accelerate a drive by Iran, even if they are not working on a nuclear weapon today, to go for a nuclear weapon," the IAEA chief said.

"So we can talk about use of force as and when we (have) exhausted diplomacy ... but we are far, far away from that stage."

Foreign ministry officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States are preparing to hold new discussions about stronger UN sanctions against Iran, possibly as early as Friday in London.

Meanwhile one of ElBaradei's deputies, Olli Heinonen, is due to hold fresh talks in Tehran on Monday.

Heinonen clinched a deal in August for Iran to answer outstanding questions over its atomic program so that the IAEA can conclude a four-year investigation.

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