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UN watchdog nations poised to freeze Iran atom aid

Written by: Staff

VIENNA, Nov 22 (Reuters) Most Western and developing nations in the UN nuclear watchdog effectively agreed today to shelve Iran's request for aid to a nuclear project over fears it could yield bomb-grade plutonium, diplomats said.

The deal left open the possibility of revisiting Iran's case later, bowing to concern of developing nations not to set a precedent for rejecting aid to them for peaceful atomic energy projects, widening a gap between ''nuclear haves and have-nots''.

Days of politically charged controversy over Iran's request for safety expertise in building its Arak heavy-water reactor broke a tradition in the International Atomic Energy Agency of routinely approving member state requests for technical aid.

A chairman's summary of an IAEA board technical aid committee hearing on Monday and Tuesday said Iran's case would be forwarded to a full conference of the 35-nation board convening tomorrow without recommending how it should rule.

But diplomats said the majority of board members had accepted a face-saving compromise that would postpone, but not ban outright, aid for Arak while ratifying seven other aid requests from Tehran judged to pose no bomb-proliferation risk.

These items have mainly to do with medical and regulatory aspects of civilian atomic energy which IAEA experts certified would not further Iran's ability to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel for bomb material.

Tehran says its nuclear energy agenda is limited to making electricity or, in Arak's case, radio-isotopes for medical ends.

Western envoys argued the Arak bid should be barred given Iran's record of hiding sensitive nuclear fuel research from the IAEA, evading IAEA investigations and defying a UN Security Council order issued in July to stop enriching uranium.

The United States, European and other allies suspect Iran is seeking bombs with enriched uranium or plutonium to threaten Israel and Western interests in the Middle East, and are seeking sanctions against Tehran at the Security Council.

SENSITIVE SEMANTICS ON REACTOR ITEM ''We expect that the board tomorrow will approve all (832) technical assistance requests (from 115 IAEA member states) except for the Arak item, but including the other items on Iran's list,'' a Western diplomat told Reuters.

Another Western diplomat said: ''That means the Arak item will be removed, not be funded. The agency will not act on it.'' A senior diplomat from the Non-Aligned Movement that groups developing nations said its board members would insist the Arak bid ''be deferred for the future''.

''The Europeans and Americans will say it's indefinite. We'll say it isn't. But you can fudge these issues,'' he said.

The second Western diplomat said ''removing'' Arak in theory would not exclude it from being resubmitted with the next batch of technical cooperation projects to the board in 2008.

''But if we are still in the same situation with Iran as we are today, I cannot imagine it would be approved then either.'' An Iranian official who asked not to be named said the Arak setback was not serious as the issue could be reconsidered in the future. He accused the West of setting back the global cause for nuclear plant safety with a political power play on Iran.

Iran intends to bring the Arak reactor on line in 2009, whether it gets IAEA safety advice or not.

Western analysts say that Iran could produce radio-isotopes just as well with modern light-water reactors, without the plutonium diversion potential of the heavy-water variety.

The second Western diplomat suggested many developing states came around to the idea to freeze action on Iran's Arak request to avoid endangering their own cases for nuclear assistance from industrialised nations channelled via the IAEA.

Reuters SBA VP0040

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