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New UN watchdog head faces rising tension with Iran

The UN atomic watchdog's new chief will present a tougher approach to Iran at a meeting of member states starting on Monday where clashes loom over his suggestion Tehran may be trying to design a nuclear weapon.

world Updated: Feb 28, 2010 16:40 IST

The UN atomic watchdog's new chief will present a tougher approach to Iran at a meeting of member states starting on Monday where clashes loom over his suggestion Tehran may be trying to design a nuclear weapon.

Iran was likely to argue Yukiya Amano lacks competence and independence from Western powers, who want to impose harsher sanctions on Tehran, as tensions grow over its escalation of nuclear fuel enrichment and suspicions of illicit bomb research.

Amano, who took over from Mohamed ElBaradei in December, was seen distilling the tougher line contained in his Feb 18 report on Iran when he opens a week-long meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) governing board.

"The report is clearer and harsher in tone than those FROM ElBaradei. He will give a summary in the same tone as the report, no more, no less," said a European diplomat who like others asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities.

Amano's approach is important because the discussion at the 35-nation board in Vienna is expected to feed into deliberations on slapping harsher sanctions on Iran taking place among the six world powers at the level of the UN Security Council.

Some diplomats said Iran might try an unusual personal attack on Amano, suggesting the veteran Japanese diplomat is a lackey of the West, to deflect attention from his report's findings and try to rally developing nations behind it.

"(Iran) wanted to kick him as soon as the report was published. They will try and focus on the personal, not the substantial," said another European diplomat said.

Iran's foreign minister has already criticised Amano, particularly his suggestion that the Islamic Republic may be working on developing a nuclear-armed missile now, rather than having done so only in the past.

"Mr Amano is new to the job and clearly has a long way to go before he can reach the experience held by Mohammed ElBaradei," Manouchehr Mottaki told Iranian broadcaster Al Alam last week.

"The report was Amano's first and, like many other first reports, it was seriously flawed."

Western diplomats have praised the new director-general for what they see as his matter-of-fact treatment of the IAEA probe into "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear activity.

Amano omitted Iran's repeated flat denials and denunciations of "forged" information and did not flag that the intelligence was not fully authenticated, as ElBaradei's reports often did.

"The Iran report shows what the 'Amano effect' means in practical terms: an IAEA staff unburdened and unleashed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," a senior Western diplomat said.

OPEN QUESTIONS
IAEA governors were not expected to rebuke Iran in a resolution as they did at their last meeting in November, when Iran was censured for hiding a uranium enrichment site.

But Western nations were likely to condemn it over an IAEA complaint that Iran had begun feeding low-enriched uranium (LEU) into centrifuges for higher refinement before inspectors could get to the scene at its Natanz pilot enrichment facility.

Iran said it started higher enrichment because it was frustrated at the collapse of an IAEA-backed plan for big powers to provide it with fuel rods for nuclear medicine made from uranium refined up to 20 percent purity.

Some diplomats also questioned why Iran had set aside the great bulk of its LEU stockpile for higher-scale enrichment when it lacks the technology to eventually convert it into fuel rods for the Tehran medical research reactor.

Iran's enrichment escalation has unnerved the West since advancing from 20 percent to the bomb-grade level of 90 percent purity would need only a few months, much faster than reaching the initial 3.5 percent stage suitable for power plants.

Iran has also told the IAEA it is building a production line at its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan to turn powder derived from LEU into uranium metal, raising concerns because this material has both weapons and civilian energy applications.

IAEA governors will also assess a separate Amano report voicing suspicion that Syria engaged in covert nuclear work at a desert site bombed by Israel in 2007 because uranium particles were found there by UN inspectors in June the following year. Syria has rebuffed IAEA requests for follow-up investigation.