IAEA seen citing some progress in Iran atomic probe

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VIENNA, Nov 13 (Reuters) The UN nuclear watchdog is likely to report this week that Iran has improved cooperation with an inquiry over its atomic work but diplomats say it may not resolve any key questions over the programme.

The timing and toughness of any further UN sanctions against Iran will hinge on world powers' interpretation of the the International Atomic Energy Agency report and a parallel report by the EU's top diplomat on recent dialogue with Tehran.

Diplomats have little doubt the European Union's Javier Solana will confirm Iran remains unwilling to suspend uranium enrichment, which the West fears Iran will use to make atom bombs rather than generating electricity as it insists.

Tehran's continued defiance of UN Security Council demands to stop enrichment alone would trigger moves to wider sanctions in the view of the United States, Britain, France and Germany, citing a game plan agreed in September with Russia and China.

But the IAEA report, expected to be issued on tomorrow or Thursday, was likely to document some progress toward Iranian transparency about secret aspects of Iran's programme, diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based agency said.

This could prompt veto-holding Russia and China to hold up harsh sanctions they have long resisted, arguing for more time for the IAEA-Iran process to bear fruit and against steps to isolate Tehran which they regard as a slippery slope to war.

''We may well see some clear cooperation from Iran but it's unclear whether it will be enough to actually move forward in the 'work plan','' a Western diplomat said, referring to IAEA questions Tehran committed in August to resolving one by one.

Amid recent hints that Iran may not have been cooperating fully or fast enough -- including Russian and Chinese calls on Tehran to do more to come clean with the IAEA, agency director Mohamed ElBaradei considered a rare visit to Tehran before the report, a diplomat close to the agency told Reuters last week.

But ElBaradei decided against going for the time being because he was not assured he would be able to meet certain top officials he wanted to engage, the diplomat said.

CRITICAL CENTRIFUGE ISSUE Iran said on November 3 it gave the IAEA all information needed to remove ambiguities about the first major issue on the list -- work to develop centrifuges which enrich uranium, and there would be no more discussions about it.

Knowledge of the details of Iran's degree of cooperation has been largely confined to a few senior IAEA officials who refused to comment before the report.

Accredited diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were indications Iran had turned over documentation that was withheld for years and raised suspicions about efforts to militarise centrifuge work.

They said it was unclear whether Iran had granted the IAEA long-sought interviews with certain Iranian nuclear officials believed to have had military links, or visit workshops developed a high-performance centrifuge known as the P-2.

Both steps would be key to closing the file on centrifuges.

''The Iranians have apparently made available (some) locations and people they did not in the past. But whether everything was put on the table that needs to be there remains to be seen,'' said a senior EU diplomat.

''Progress has been made but it apparently has not been as rapid as hoped for. We will need to read between the lines in this report,'' a senior Asian diplomat said.

Iran's official news agency IRNA quoted its deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi on Tuesday as saying the IAEA ''is satisfied with Iran's ... vast, transparent and confidence-building actions'' and the report should reflect this.

The report may also confirm Iran has raised the number of operating centrifuges in its main uranium enrichment plant to 3,000, diplomats said. That would be enough to launch industrial production of nuclear fuel if the machines run efficiently.

But Iran is likely to need much more time to master the process, analysts say. Iran is not seen gaining the ability to assemble bombs, assuming it wants them, for another 3-8 years, according to intelligence estimates.

REUTERS SBC VC2155

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