U.S., EU oppose atomic aid for Iran at tense IAEA meet
By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) - Western powers urged the U.N. nuclear agency on Monday to deny Iran's request for help with a plant that could yield plutonium for atom bombs, but Washington voiced no objection to seven other projects presented by Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board has repeatedly asked Iran not to pursue the Arak heavy water reactor project. Tehran has vowed to complete it and applied for IAEA expertise to ensure it meets safety standards.
Although IAEA approval of such requests is usually routine, Western board members said the Arak case must be rejected due to Iran's record of evading IAEA non-proliferation inspections and its defiance of U.N. demands to stop enriching uranium.
"Given past board decisions, continued questions about Iran's nuclear program and the risk of plutonium being diverted to use in a weapon, the United States joins with others who cannot approve this (Arak) project," Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the weeklong board session.
Finnish Ambassador Kirsti Helena Kauppi, speaking on behalf of the EU, said technical expertise should be withheld from Arak as it "would involve a significant proliferation risk."
Iran denies intent to derive plutonium from Arak, saying it would produce only radio-isotopes for medical uses, replacing a smaller light-water reactor that predates Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and is said by Tehran to be obsolete.
Developing nations locked horns with Western counterparts at the meeting, saying that a rejection of Tehran's request would set a politicized precedent for withholding technical aid from them for peaceful atomic energy programs.
Diplomats said most board members wanted to avoid a divisive vote that Iran was likely to lose and blame on Western bullying.
CONSENSUS COMPROMISE IN WORKS?
They said a deal was being considered under which the board would shelve the Arak item while approving the other seven technical aid requests made by Iran, seen as less problematic.
Schulte said Washington was prepared to join a consensus for that solution since IAEA experts had certified these projects would not further Iran's ability to produce atomic fuel.
They include developing radiation therapy for medical ends, help in commissioning a Russian-built nuclear reactor not deemed a proliferation risk, and regulatory aspects of nuclear energy.
A decision was expected later in the week.
Diplomats said a feasible outcome was a compromise to defer, rather than reject outright, the Arak item pending guidance from the Security Council, where world powers are mulling sanctions on Iran but are split over how tough they should be.
"Deferral is the most likely option as it would help avoid alienating developing nations on the board and buy time to see what the Security Council will do to resolve this battle elsewhere," a senior IAEA diplomat told Reuters.
A statement delivered by the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations, to which Iran belongs, said NAM condemned any attempts "to use the IAEA technical co-operation program as a tool for political purposes" in violation of IAEA statutes.
The Arak case has symbolized the diplomatic crisis over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.
Tehran says these are limited to generating electricity. The United States and EU fear Iran is seeking bombs to threaten Israel and Western interests in the Middle East.
Iran vows to build the reactor whether IAEA safety aid is granted or not. It is one of 820 proposals from 115 nations up for consideration and ratification by the board by Friday.
Russia and China, who oppose U.N. sanctions for Iran sought by the West, had no problems with the Arak item, diplomats said.
Iranian IAEA envoy Aliasghar Soltanieh, accused Western powers of politicizing technical aid.
"By approving this project, the IAEA will have much more presence and supervision at Arak than before, continuously monitoring and giving safety advice," Soltanieh told reporters.
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