As Europeans mull an Iranian offer to resume negotiations, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Monday his inspectors were making progress in their effort to probe the country's nuclear weapons intentions.
"We are moving in the right direction." Mohamed ElBaradei, winner of this year's Nobel peace prize, said at a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
However, he said his inspectors were eager to take a look at the Lavizan facility, where Iran conducts high-explosive tests that could have a bearing on developing weapons.
But, overall, he said, "we are making good progress with Iran."
Iran has offered to reopen negotiations with Britain, France and Germany. There has been no formal response, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London "Iran's got to face up to its responsibilities, it's got to abide by the strictures and obligations of the atomic energy authority."
At the State Department, spokesman Adam Ereli said Iran should agree to stop its enrichment program before any new talks with the Europeans.
The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, of which ElBaradei is director general, has held back from referring its criticism of Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where economic and political penalties would be considered.
ElBaradei offered no recommendation in his remarks at the conference, attended by officials, scientists and academicians from 17 countries.
Iran's determination to pursue enrichment of weapons material is the primary concern of the Europeans, the United States and the U.N. agency.
ElBaradei said he was hopeful that within a year a nuclear fuel reserve could be established to provide countries like Iran with technology for civilian nuclear reactors while they would agree to a moratorium in enriching nuclear fuel. "We are very close," he said,.
But he said that Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear program also is of concern, need to be made to feel secure, with economic and other concessions, in the event they give up nuclear weapons.
In a report released Monday, the General Accounting Office praised the IAEA as a cornerstone of U.S. efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and for increasing its efforts to combat nuclear terrorism and helping countries to safeguard nuclear and radioactive material.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, also suggested that the agency is stretched thin and should consider eliminating or reducing its oversight in countries with small quantities of nuclear material.
And, the GAO said, despite success in uncovering some countries' secret nuclear activities, "a determined country can still conceal a nuclear weapons program."
Negotiations on North Korea's program are due to resume on Wednesday in Beijing, with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia all pressing for a plan to implement North Korea's pledge to end its program.
Last month, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told the IAEA in a videotaped message that the United States would establish a nuclear fuel reserve for countries that forgo the ability to make their own nuclear fuel.
And Russia has offered to make nuclear material available to Iran through the IAEA.
ElBaradei said Monday that "once you have that assured supply, you have taken away the justification for countries to say,'I'd like to make my own fuel,' and that's 80 percent of the problem."
ElBaradei was praised by several delegates to the two-day conference for his findings in early 2003, before President George W. Bush went to war with Iraq, that there was no evidence deposed President Saddam Hussein had hidden arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, a claim that was pivotal to Bush's war policy.
The administration opposed a third term for ElBaradei as head of the U.N. agency, but had to relent when other countries could not be swayed to line up with the United States against the Egyptian diplomat, AP reported. V.A.