VIENNA, Sep 17 (Reuters) The UN nuclear watchdog chief said today talk of last-ditch war on Iran to disable its nuclear programme was premature ''hype'' and suggested moves to harden sanctions on Tehran may be counterproductive.
Mohamed ElBaradei took issue with France's warning yesterday that it should prepare for the possibility of military action to halt Iran's uranium enrichment, a programme the West suspects is a disguised quest to assemble atom bombs.
Western powers led by the United States and France have been fuming over ElBaradei's new deal with Iran requiring it to answer questions about past secret nuclear research but without touching its accelerating campaign to enrich atomic fuel.
They fear Iran has tricked the IAEA, pretending to cooperate to avoid painful sanctions and buy time to master enrichment.
Alluding to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's warning, ElBaradei said ''we need to be cool and not hype the Iranian issue'' in a way he said reminded him of the run-up to the Iraq war, driven by suspicions of secret arms never found.
Speaking on the sidelines of the IAEA'S 149-nation annual assembly, he repeated that IAEA sleuths had found no evidence of ''weaponisation'' from Iranian enrichment work, although Iran was still preventing wider inspections aimed at ruling this out.
Yesterday, Koucher said in a radio and television interview: ''We must prepare for the worst. The worst, sir, is war.'' But ElBaradei said war should be pursued only in extreme cases of one state attacking another or imminent peril to international security, and only if backed by the UN Security Council -- unlikely due to Russian and West European opposition, although US and Israeli hawks have mooted unilateral action.
''I don't think we are at all at that point,'' ElBaradei said.
''HOLD YOUR HORSES'' ''I ask everyone to hold their horses until we do the (transparency) process,'' he said, stressing he would tell IAEA members in November whether Iran was honouring the plan or not.
Asked whether six world powers' planned meeting on Friday to discuss tougher UN sanctions could torpedo the plan, as Tehran has warned, ElBaradei pointedly withheld a seal of approval.
''If the UN Security Council would decide to adopt more sanctions, if they believe it is a way to help resolve the issue, that's their prerogative,'' he said. ''But I believe sanctions alone will not lead to a durable solution.'' Deflecting U.S. and EU criticism that he has coddled Iran, he said: ''I don't have a magic wand... We are not being soft or hard, we are not using the stick or the carrot.'' On Monday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said everything must be done to avoid the prospect of war.
But Iran again vowed this week never to abandon enrichment, which it bills as an alternative electricity source, and accused Kouchner of using ''crisis-making words''.
Tehran wants to come clean on its programme and use nuclear energy under IAEA monitoring but hostility from Washington and a few allies make that difficult, its atomic energy chief said.
''The Iranian nation is determined to continue its (nuclear) path until the highest point of advancement,'' Reza Aghazadeh said. ''(We) have no fear of the costs we may have to bear to achieve this.'' Washington is growing impatient with the pace of diplomacy as Iran expands enrichment. President George W Bush has warned Iran will be stopped before causes ''a nuclear holocaust''.
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