Iran veered closer towards the possibility of being slapped with tough new international sanctions on Monday after its president refused to stop enriching uranium and the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned of a “stalemate” with the country.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran is ready to talk with world powers about unspecified “global concerns” -- but he insisted his government will neither halt uranium enrichment nor negotiate over its nuclear rights.
“From our point of view, Iran’s nuclear issue is over,” Mr. Ahmadinejad declared in Tehran. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged Iran to “substantively re-engage” with the international community and clear up questions about its nuclear ambitions once and for all.
“Iran needs to respond fully to all the questions raised by the agency in order to exclude the possibility of there being military dimensions to its nuclear program,” Mr. ElBaradei told the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors on Monday.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. The United States and key allies contend it is covertly trying to build a bomb.
This week’s meeting in Vienna, and the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, could set the stage for a toughening of sanctions against Iran for its continued defiance of Western demands that it suspend uranium enrichment. Tehran already has defied three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions.
President Barack Obama and European allies have given Iran until the end of September to take up an offer of nuclear talks with world powers and trade incentives should it suspend uranium enrichment activities. If not, Iran could face harsher punitive sanctions.
Mr. ElBaradei said on Monday he hoped such dialogue would begin as soon as possible, and he urged Iran “to respond positively to the recent U.S. initiative.”
France bristled at Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tough stance, saying the Iranian leader’s latest comments “are not going in a good direction.”
“We regret that Iran has not seized the occasion up to now, and we encourage it to do so if it wants to choose cooperation with the international community and not isolation,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said.
Mr. ElBaradei acknowledged that Iran has provided IAEA inspectors access to a research reactor at Arak and has tightened security at its main nuclear facility in the southern city of Natanz.
But he said Iran is still enriching uranium, which can be used for nuclear fuel or -- if enriched to a high enough level -- can produce fissile material for a warhead.
“On all other issues relevant to Iran’s nuclear program ... there is (a) stalemate,” Mr. ElBaradei told the IAEA board.
“It is essential that Iran substantively re-engage with the agency to clarify and bring to closure all outstanding issues,” he said. Mr. ElBaradei also urged Iran anew to sign an agreement that would let his inspectors conduct unannounced and more intrusive inspections.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said his country has provided the IAEA with all the information it needs and that it was now up to the agency to act.
“In our view, we believe that the agency should finalize the outstanding questions,” Mr. Saeedi said.
Mr. Saeedi said Iran has also “cooperated widely” with the IAEA to improve safeguard measurements at Natanz and “voluntarily” provided U.N. nuclear inspectors access to its Arak site.
ElBaradei sharply criticized recent media reports suggesting that his office has held back some of the intelligence it has collected on Iran. He said he was “dismayed” by the notion, and denounced the reports as “politically motivated and totally baseless.”
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner asked ElBaradei to publish additional material held by the agency related to Iran’s nuclear program, according to French media reports.
ElBaradei also criticized Syria for failing to disclose details about a desert site bombed by Israel in 2007.
“Syria has not cooperated with the agency to confirm Syria’s statements regarding the non—nuclear nature of the destroyed building on the Dair Alzour site, nor has it provided the required access to information, locations, equipment or materials,” he said.
ElBaradei had a terse assessment of North Korea, which conducted its second nuclear test eplosion in May. The IAEA pulled out its inspectors after North Korea suspended all cooperation with the IAEA in April, and since has been unable to monitor or verify Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.
“I therefore have nothing to report to the board,” he said.
Ahmadinejad said Iran will present a package of proposals to the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany but rejected any deadline for such talks.
The hard—liner didn’t specify what will be up for discussion -- or if it would even involve its disputed nuclear program -- but vaguely said Iran has prepared a package of proposals that would “identify challenges facing humanity ... and resolve global concerns.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran will continue to cooperate with the IAEA over regulations on safeguards but it will resist the agency should it be influenced by political pressures.