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IAEA meeting set to block aid for Iran atom reactor

Written by: Staff
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VIENNA, Nov 20 (Reuters) The UN nuclear watchdog began a politically charged meeting today that is likely to put on ice Iran's request for help with a heavy-water plant due to fears it could yield plutonium for atom bombs, diplomats said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board urged Iran in February to ''reconsider'' the Arak reactor project. Tehran has vowed to complete it and applied for IAEA technical expertise to ensure the plant meets safety standards.

Although IAEA approval of such requests is usually routine, Western board members say the Arak case must be rejected given Iran's record of evading IAEA non-proliferation inspections and its defiance of UN demands to stop enriching uranium.

But developing nations on the Vienna-based body oppose outright rejection, They say this would impose a politicised precedent for withholding technical aid to peaceful atomic energy programmes they are pursuing or may consider.

Diplomats said the most likely outcome was a compromise in which the board would defer a decision pending guidance from the UN Security Council, where world powers are considering 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 today.

The Arak case, on which a board ruling was expected later in a week-long meeting, has symbolised the diplomatic crisis over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

Tehran says these are limited to generating electricity. The United States and European Union fear Iran is seeking bombs to threaten Israel and Western interests in the West Asia.

If uranium's fissile element is enriched to a low level, it can fuel power plants. Refined to 80 per cent or more, it becomes the explosive core of nuclear warheads.

Plutonium, a highly fissile by-product of heavy-water production, is suitable for bombs or power-plant fuel alike.

ARAK PLANT The 40-megawatt Arak complex is due for completion in 2009.

Iran says it will produce 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.

Western leaders say there is a high risk Tehran's underlying agenda with Arak is to yield weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran says the reactor will be built whether IAEA safety aid is granted or not. It is one of 820 proposals from 115 nations to be considered by a board committee today through Wednesday and ratified at a full board conference on Thursday and Friday.

Ana-Maria Cetto, IAEA deputy director for technical cooperation, told Monday's gathering that legal experts in the agency's secretariat judged the Arak request legitimate because it did not involve enrichment-related or fuel-reprocessing activities the Security Council ordered to be suspended.

Iranian IAEA envoy Aliasghar Soltanieh, echoing criticism by some fellow members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) developing nations, accused the West of politicising a technical aid process ''that should be impartial and professional.'' ''The reactor project will continue in any case,'' he said.

''But 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.

REUTERS AB BST1805

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