IAEA Chief Cautiously Optimistic on Iran Nuclear Deal

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Iran and three European Union nations said they have reached an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, an announcement that overshadowed a meeting of Asia-Pacific government officials who gathered to discuss weapons of mass destruction threats.

Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting in Australia Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohammed ElBaradei said he was cautiously optimistic about the reported deal between Tehran and the EU's "big three," Britain, France and Germany.

"I would hope that this would lead to the desired outcome, which is [for] Iran to suspend [nuclear] processing and enrichment activities and open the way for the normalization of Iran's relations with the international community," he told a press conference in Sydney.

Reports from Paris said the deal would entail Iran freezing its nuclear activities until a final agreement was reached with the EU trio over a package of lucrative economic incentives, in return for abandoning those components of the program that have the potential to produce atomic weapons.

Iran insists its program, developed with Russian aid, is designed for peaceful power generation only, but the U.S. and some of its allies believe that it has been secretly developing atomic bombs.

Washington has been pressing the IAEA to secure an undertaking from Iran that it will not develop nuclear fuel, or face the possibility of referral to the U.N. Security Council - step that could lead to sanctions..

The IAEA's governing board meets to consider the issue on Nov. 25, but ElBaradei's comments Monday suggested that referral to the Council may not occur.

"I think many board members approach will be different if Iran shows confidence building and suspends enrichment," he said.

On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said during a visit to Tehran that Beijing would oppose any move to refer Iran to the Security Council.

Nuclear programs pursued by Iran and North Korea were on the agenda at the Sydney meeting, hosted and chaired by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and with ElBaradei a keynote speaker.

Before the talks began, Downer warned that al-Qaeda-linked terrorists would stop at nothing to get their hands onto non-conventional weapons.

There was "absolutely no doubt that terrorists ... are endeavoring to get hold of nuclear materials as well as other forms of weapons of mass destruction."

Downer told Australian television that although there was no evidence to date that Jemaah Islamiah (JI) - South-East Asia's al-Qaeda affiliate - was trying to secure WMD, a group that was willing to kill young people in Bali "wouldn't stop short of using at least some sort of more vicious and more dangerous weapons."

"I think in the interests of the region and the interest of humanity we need to make a very big effort to stop the proliferation of these systems," he said.

Addressing the gathering, Downer said the most likely non-conventional threat from terrorists was probably the use of "some kind of radiological bomb" built with nuclear material.

While such a device may not cause a large number of casualties, it would cause severe panic, he said.

"If there were to be a terrorist incident involving nuclear material there would be a sense of global pandemonium. Yet how much focus is there now on the risks involved?"

Concerns that rogue states may build nuclear weapons and transfer the know-how to terrorist groups is a key driving force behind the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a plan to stop and search ships and planes suspected of carrying WMD cargoes.

In the region, Australia and Japan are participants in the PSI, and joint exercises were recently held off the Japanese coast with the U.S. and other allies.

Downer's office said the Asia-Pacific Nuclear Safeguards and Security conference in Sydney aimed to open new opportunities in the region for practical cooperation on nuclear security.

"This is about getting countries in our region to try to develop common approaches to dealing with questions such as nuclear security."

"There's no consensus in detail how to handle, for example, sensitive exports," Downer said. "There's no consensus on how to handle nuclear materials internally."

Last April the Security Council passed a resolution calling on all states to "promote dialogue and cooperation on non-proliferation so as to address the threat posed by proliferation of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, and their means of delivery."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow