WASHINGTON — As the West steps up its economic pressure on Iran, the United Nations' atomic watchdog is saying there is no evidence Iran's enrichment of uranium is intended for a nuclear weapons program.
Speaking on CNN on Sunday, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, pointedly asked the Bush administration to share any evidence of intended weaponization, though he did make sure to say Iran's file at the IAEA remained open. Iran's president in September defiantly announced at the U.N. General Assembly that the file was closed.
"What we have seen in the past is certain procurement that has not been reported to us. There are experiments. And that is where we are working now with Iran to clarify the past and the present," Mr. ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel peace laureate, said on CNN's "Late Edition." "But I have not received any information that there is a complete active nuclear weapons program going on right now."
Those remarks come as Iran policy has become a contentious topic in the American presidential campaign, with Senator Clinton, the leading Democrat in the polls, criticizing President Bush's "saber rattling and belligerence toward Iran," while other Democrats warn that Mr. Bush might go to war against Iran as he did against Iraq. Virtually all the major candidates have promised to deny Iran the atom bomb.
The Iranians have rejected incentives to end their continued uranium enrichment, and the U.N. Security Council has passed two resolutions on the topic. More recently, the Islamic Republic signaled its rejection of a Western deal to suspend those activities by removing their chief interlocutor with the West, Ali Larijani, from his post as chief negotiator.
Next month, the IAEA will issue another report on Iran's progress in answering outstanding questions about its nuclear program. All five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council agreed in September to hold off on voting for a third round of sanctions against Iran until the IAEA report and a separate report from the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, are issued.
In August, Mr. ElBaradei suggested that the U.N. Security Council avoid a third sanctions resolution and allow Iran to enrich uranium in exchange for full cooperation on the history of its nuclear program. That proposal was rejected a week later by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Since 2003, the IAEA has not rendered a judgment on whether Iran's nuclear program is intended for weapons. In 2006, the chief weapons inspector for Iran resigned in protest after Mr. ElBaradei removed him from his post, responding to complaints from the Iranians. IAEA inspectors arrived yesterday in Tehran.
Mr. ElBaradei's remarks are at odds with the assessments of America, France, and Israel. Recently, American intelligence agencies revised their estimates of how far away the Iranians were from building a nuclear bomb to as soon as three years from five years at a minimum. Senator Boxer, a Democrat of California, made a reference to the estimate on CNN yesterday when asked about Mr. ElBaradei's remarks. She said that in briefings from the Pentagon, it was estimated that Tehran will have completed its nuclear work in three to 10 years.
The Israelis are particularly nervous. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Beijing to make the case against Iran, whose president has threatened to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Prime Minister Olmert earlier this month was in Moscow to make the case against Iran to President Putin.
When asked about recent remarks from President Bush warning that those interested in preventing "World War III" should be unified against Iran, Mr. ElBaradei said he recommended that the Bush White House speak more softly.
"My belief is that we ought to dial down the rhetoric," he said. "We ought to make it clear that there is always a military option if Iran goes nuclear. But we ought to just speak more softly because these hot words that are coming out of the administration, this hot rhetoric plays right into the hands of fanatics in Iran."
On Thursday, the White House designated Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the largest branch of its military, as a procurer of weapons of mass destruction. The White House also designated three of Iran's largest banks as such procurers and the elite branch of Revolutionary Guard, known as the Quds Force, as a sponsor of foreign terrorist organizations.
Prior to last week, American diplomats had hoped to use the threat of such a designation as a prod to Germany and other states to deliver on promises of divestment from Iran.
In his interview with CNN, Mr. ElBaradei also criticized Israel for its bombing last month of a facility that American officials have said was part of a Syrian nuclear program and aided by North Korea. "To bomb first and then ask questions later, I think it undermines the system and it doesn't lead to any solutions," Mr. ElBaradei said.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, Mr. ElBaradei, an Egyptian, played a similar role to the one he is now playing, urging more time for diplomacy and drawing the ire of the Bush administration.