VIENNA (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency nuclear agency on Monday said his organization has "serious concerns" that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work, as he acknowledged failure in his latest attempt to probe such suspicions and listed recent atomic advances by Iran.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano spoke to the 35-nation IAEA board amid backdoor diplomatic maneuvering aimed at coming up with substantial joint pressure on Iran to end its nuclear defiance and address global concerns about its nuclear activities.
The conference opened as fears grow that Israel may soon strike Iran in an attempt to destroy its nuclear facilities. President Barack Obama is expected to ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for restraint when they meet in Washington later in the day.
Amano summarized the most pressing worries — Tehran's rebuff of two recent attempts to probe the weapons program suspicions and a sharp, recent increase in uranium enrichment, which Iran says it needs for nuclear energy, but which can also produce fissile weapons material.
"The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," he told the meeting. "As Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation ... the agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to concluded that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."
A senior diplomat from an IAEA member nation said shortly after Amano's opening comments that the United States and its western allies continued to lobby Russia and China to back a resolution critical of Iran's refusal to heed IAEA and U.N. Security Council demands that it banish such concerns by opting for full nuclear transparency.
Moscow and Beijing traditionally act as brakes on Western attempts to tighten the sanctions vise on Iran, and the diplomat — who asked for anonymity because his information was privileged — told The Associated Press that the focus was on finding language they could agree with, without watering down the message to the point that it became meaningless.
Any resolution passed by the IAEA board automatically goes to the U.N. Security Council and could be used as a platform for additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic, which already is the focus of four sets of U.N. sanctions meant primarily to pressure it to give up enrichment. The U.S., the European Union and others have additionally slapped Tehran recently with financial and economic penalties meant to hurt its banking system and oil export industry.
Recent moves to boost higher-enriched enrichment at Fordo, an underground facility that may be able to withstand aerial attack, are of particular concern.
Referring to his most recent report on Iran circulated late last month, Amano noted that Tehran had tripled higher monthly enrichment to 20 percent at Fordo over the past four months, as well as significantly expanding lower-level enrichment at another facility.
Both lower enriched uranium below 5 percent and 20 percent enriched material can be processed further to 90 percent — the level used to arm nuclear warheads. But 20-percent enrichment is of particular concern because it can be turned into weapons-grade material much more quickly and easily that lower-enriched uranium.
The IAEA meeting comes less than two weeks after IAEA experts returned from Tehran from their second failed attempt within a month to persuade Iran to end nearly four years of stonewalling on what the agency says is growing intelligence-based information that Iran has worked — and may still be working — on components of a nuclear weapons program.
Iran dismisses the suspicions as based on fabricated information provided by the United States and Israel.