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IAEA Head Backs Calls for Direct US-Iranian Talks - 2004-03-17

The head of the U.N. nuclear agency is backing calls for direct talks between Iran and the United States. President Bush met Wednesday with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

Following his Oval Office meeting, Mr. ElBaradei said the idea of direct talks between Iran and the United States is being discussed in what he called "different quarters." "It is not for me to advise on that, but I am always in favor of a dialogue," he said.

White House officials say there has been no direct contact with Iran over possible talks on nuclear issues.

Mr. ElBaradei said he believes Iran understands that cooperating with U.N. inspectors is crucial to refuting allegations that the country is secretly developing a nuclear weapons program.

"There was familiar concern here in Washington about the Iranian program and I told them that the agency work is still a work in progress, that the jury is still out, that we haven't yet come to any conclusions on the nature of the program but we continue to apply very vigorous inspections and hopefully expect to see full cooperation, full transparency by Iran if Iran wants to prove that its program is for peaceful purposes," he said.

Before his White House talks, Mr. ElBaradei told a U.S. congressional committee that U.N. inspectors in Iran have seen no evidence of a nuclear weapons program, but he can not exclude the possibility that such a program might exist.

Mr. ElBaradei said he hopes that when his next report on Iran is issued in June, he will be in a better position to clarify what he called "many of the outstanding issues."

Iran's failure to declare all of its nuclear-related materials led to an IAEA resolution criticizing the government. Iran initially responded by blocking the return of U.N. inspectors but has now agreed for their return later this month.

"I think today Iran is cooperating fully. It was regrettable that they suspended inspections for a couple of weeks," he said. "Now they are back on track, and I expect them to be fully cooperative, to be fully transparent, to provide us all the information in the most detailed manner because we started from somewhat of a deficit in confidence. And we need to build confidence. And for us to build confidence, we need one-hundred percent cooperation."

Iran says its nuclear activities are only for peaceful, civilian purposes. President Mohammad Khatami said he will continue to cooperate with the IAEA, as long as what he called "U.S. plots" to declare Iran in breach of international law are ineffective.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says President Bush remains concerned about Iran's behavior and shares U.N. concerns about omissions in the country's disclosure of previous nuclear activities.

"We have serious concerns about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons," he said. "There certainly is no reason why they need to have nuclear energy given all their vast oil and gas resources. And we need to continue to send a clear, consistent, and strong message to Iran."

Mr. ElBaradei said he and President Bush agreed that the time had come to "change many of the rules" in order to strengthen the fight against nuclear proliferation, especially with the discovery of previous nuclear-technology exports from Pakistan.