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U.S. retreats on Iran at UN


ington backed down yesterday in the face of stiff international opposition to its plan to have a UN watchdog agency brand Iran a nuclear weapons threat.

Canada was inclined to support Washington's original plan, diplomats say, but like the United States, it tested the waters and found there was not enough support among board members of the International Atomic Energy Agency to declare Iran in breach of nuclear non-proliferation agreements.

Such a declaration would have paved the way for economic and diplomatic sanctions to be imposed by the UN Security Council.

In a replay of the Iraq crisis, a majority of the 35 member nations on the agency's board resisted U.S. diplomatic pressure, indicating they want to give UN weapons inspectors more time to probe the extent of Iran's nuclear program.

At this point, the evidence that Iran is close to building a bomb is ambiguous, UN sources say.

U.S. diplomats unsuccessfully lobbied their counterparts on the board to adopt a resolution next week declaring Iran in breach of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

The resolution was to go to the board for a vote next week. But it became clear during informal consultations that the United States would not get the votes it needed, according to diplomats at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Malaysia, Egypt, India and other so-called "non-aligned" members of the board put the brakes on a U.S. move to immediately label Iran a nuclear threat. They said Iran should be given at least until November to show that it is fully co-operating with inspectors.

A UN official said "there is a real hangover from the Iraq situation" last winter when U.S. President George W. Bush's administration ignored the pleas of inspectors for more time to investigate Baghdad's programs for developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. "This time, with Iran there seems to be a real determination [by IAEA board members] to let the process work and give the inspectors time to pull together the evidence."

Mr. Bush labelled Iran -- along with Iraq and North Korea -- as part of an "axis of evil" because of alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for power generation and other peaceful purposes. In a report to be taken up by the board Monday, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei says there are a number of "important outstanding issues" regarding Iran's uranium enrichment program.

The agency's inspectors detected trace amounts of highly enriched uranium at a facility during an inspection in June. The substance can be used to produce nuclear warheads. The Iranians contend the particles are the result of contamination of equipment the country purchased and imported from China a decade ago.

At the meeting next week, the board is expected to send a strong message to Tehran that it must step up co-operation with inspectors because patience is wearing thin, one diplomat said.

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