Vienna, Sep 17: The UN nuclear watchdog chief is likely to defend a deal with Iran to the agency's 144-nation assembly today as Western critics call for harsh sanctions on Tehran and talk of war as a ''worst-case'' option.
Iran's pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency to clarify past nuclear research left untouched its programme to enrich uranium, seen by the West as a disguised bid for bombs, and split the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors last week.
Developing nations endorsed the plan and took IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's side against Western complaints of a gambit to stave off sanctions on Tehran over its defiance of UN Security Council resolutions ordering to suspend enrichment.
The divisive deal faced broader debate at the weeklong IAEA General Conference, an open assembly unlike the closed sessions of the policy-making governors held annually to weigh how to better ensure use of nuclear energy for peaceful ends.
ElBaradei, who received demarches from Washington and three EU powers for perceived softness on Iran, stressed his negotiators' ''objectivity and impartiality'' in closing remarks to the board meeting released by aides yesterday.
He said winning an Iranian commitment to answer questions about previous covert activity by the end of this year was a major step forward towards defusing an international standoff over Iranian behaviour, as long as Iran honoured the pact.
''We are not swayed by subjective political considerations and we will not thus be swayed...We are part of the United Nations system and our primary responsibility is to find peaceful solutions,'' he told the governors.
''At the end of the day we need to move in a much more positive direction than that of confrontation,'' he said, alluding to his fiercest critics in Washington and Paris.
The United States and France are pressing for harsher UN sanctions despite Iran's threat to scrap the deal if pressure intensifies. Six world powers will convene in Washington on Friday to discuss cranking up so-far mild sanctions.
But US officials have been losing patience with wheels of diplomacy turning slowly as Iran steadily expands enrichment to make it a fait accompli. President George W Bush has warned Iran will be stopped before it causes ''a nuclear holocaust''.
Yesterday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country must prepare for the possibility of war against Iran over its nuclear defiance, although he did not believe any such action was imminent, calling for more sanctions before then.
''We must prepare for the worst,'' Kouchner said in a radio and television interview, adding: ''The worst, sir, is war.'' ''We are preparing ourselves by trying to put together plans that are the chiefs of staff's prerogative (but) that is not about to happen tomorrow,'' he added.
Iran's Atomic Energy agency chief, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, was expected to tell the IAEA assembly that Tehran was serious about implementing its transparency pledge. Iran says it wants to master nuclear technology solely to produce electricity.