VIENNA: The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has won the support of Washington but now faces the greater challenge of dealing with an Iranian atomic programme that the European countries and the US suspect is aimed at building weapons.

For over a year, the United States tried to oust the 62-year-old Egyptian director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but officially gave up its campaign against him on Thursday when the US State Department said it would back the lawyer and veteran diplomat.

This means he has the unanimous support of the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors, which meets next week to approve his reappointment for a third term and discuss the latest report on the agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Some US officials have accused ElBaradei of being soft on Iran and undermining the US push to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. But some European diplomats and arms experts say he is anything but soft.

“Mohamed has always favoured a diplomatic solution with Iran — that is, an agreement between the European Union and Iran,” said Gary Samore, an arms control expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

ElBaradei has not found any hard proof that Iran wants nuclear weapons as Washington claims, but Samore said there are too many open questions about Iran’s possible nuclear weapons capability for the IAEA to end its investigation soon.

“If he closes the file now, the Iranians will say that there is no longer any reason to suspend their uranium enrichment programme and I don’t think Mohamed’s going to do anything like that,” said Samore, an adviser to former US President Bill Clinton.

The EU’s three biggest powers — France, Britain and Germany — share US concerns that Iran wants nuclear weapons and are determined to prevent Tehran from mastering the science of uranium enrichment, a process of purifying uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or weapons. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and under the NPT, like other countries, it is allowed to master the science of uranium enrichment.

Iran has frozen its enrichment programme temporarily to allay the European concerns, but has rejected the EU trio’s offer of US-backed incentives if it terminates and dismantles all its enrichment-related facilities.

Tehran has said it would only maintain the suspension until the end of July, when the Europeans have promised to deliver a detailed offer of incentives for the Islamic republic.

ElBaradei has called for a global moratorium on uranium enrichment, but few countries with the technology — including both the United States and Iran — support this idea. Iran says enrichment is a sovereign right it will never abandon.

The IAEA board will hear few new things about Iran next week but may hear how Pakistan has helped the probe, diplomats said.

A preliminary analysis of Pakistani components for enrichment centrifuges identical to ones Iran purchased on the black market appear to back Tehran’s contention that traces of bomb-grade uranium were the result of contamination, Vienna officials familiar with the IAEA investigation of Iran said.

“Iran’s assertions that it did not produce this enriched uranium (itself) appear to be truthful,” an official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

However, the analysis of the centrifuge parts that Islamabad recently provided to the IAEA has not removed all doubts about the origin of uranium traces found in Iran, Western diplomats familiar with the investigation said.—Reuters

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