VIENNA, Austria -- An appeal by Iran for technical help on a heavy-water nuclear reactor was quashed yesterday by the U.N.'s nuclear agency after board members signaled they could not agree - or be assured - that Iran would use the reactor solely for peaceful purposes.
Iran was seeking technical assistance for a research reactor under construction near the city of Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency board essentially dropped Iran's request because of fierce opposition rallied by countries that fund technical assistance and are skeptical of Iran's intentions.
Iran's request was watched closely against the backdrop of a much thornier, long-running dispute between Iran and United Nations' powers over Iran's nuclear enrichment program. During the weeklong discussion of what is usually a low-key technical review, Iranian and U.S. officials accused the other of "politicizing" the consideration process.
Iran contends the Arak reactor, designated for civilian use, is designed to produce radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment. Critics, including the United States and the European Commission, argued that Iran's heavy-water reactor would also produce significant quantities of plutonium, a byproduct that could be used in nuclear bombs and other weaponry.
The Islamic republic has been at odds with the U.N. Security Council for months amid suspicions that Iran is hiding a weapons program within its broader nuclear program. Iran has said that its nuclear program is focused on peaceful uses. As tensions heightened this year, Iran ignored a U.N. Security Council resolution to stop enriching uranium.
Yesterday, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran's intransigence in regards to the Security Council "continues to be a matter of serious concern." In a report to the 35-member governing board, he said that in the past three months the IAEA had made no progress in clearing up questions about Iran's overall program.
ElBaradei said Iran agreed yesterday morning to provide some records from its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz - records long sought by the agency. In a separate letter received Wednesday by the IAEA, Iran also promised to allow the agency to take more samples from a facility that had previously yielded some traces of enriched uranium.
No timetable was given for either of the promises. ElBaradei characterized the offers as "steps in the right direction." He also reiterated, as in previous reports, that Iran hid part of its nuclear program for two decades from the IAEA and that Iran needed to restore "international confidence" about the nuclear aspirations.
U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte was quick to call the board's decision to exclude the reactor, one of eight civilian projects for which Iran was seeking assistance, a reflection of the IAEA's "continued concern about the nature of Iran's nuclear program and the intentions of its leadership."
In Iran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki defended the project and said the IAEA was legally required to provide technical assistance to a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Christine Spolar writes for the Chicago Tribune.