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U.N. agency urges Iran to halt nuke activities


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

VIENNA, Austria (CNN) -- The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors passed a resolution Thursday asking Iran to again suspend its nuclear activities, including uranium conversion at its Isfahan plant.

The resolution -- written by France, Britain and Germany -- also urges Iran "to permit the director-general to reinstate the seals" on equipment used to process uranium. The resolution calls for the IAEA director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, to report back on Iran's compliance by September 3.

The resolution recognizes a country's right to develop nuclear energy but emphasizes "the need for effective safeguards."

Iran removed IAEA seals from equipment Wednesday and resumed uranium conversion at its Isfahan plant. (Full story)

Uranium conversion is a first step toward uranium enrichment, which could be a step toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

"The board calls on Iran to rectify the situation but also underlined the importance of further discussion about Iran's decision," ElBaradei said after Thursday's meeting. "I read that to mean a call to all parties to go back to the negotiating table."

U.S. President George Bush praised the IAEA's position Thursday, calling it a "positive first step."

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the United States and the three EU countries will jointly recommend referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions if Tehran does not suspend uranium processing before the September 19 IAEA board meeting.

Under immense international pressure, Iran voluntarily suspended its nuclear development program in October 2003. Earlier this week, the Islamic republic rejected a European proposal to end a stalemate over its nuclear aspirations and announced it would resume operations at Isfahan.

Isfahan is not an enrichment plant, and Western intelligence sources have told CNN that even if Iran restarted its entire nuclear program today and intended to build nuclear weapons it would still be five to 10 years from being able to do so.

The United Nations inspectors cannot definitively conclude that Iran does not have any undeclared nuclear materials, the draft resolution said . But it added that ElBaradei had reported that all declared material was accounted for and not diverted to "prohibited activities."

Iran's many messages

Iran says its nuclear program is meant to generate civilian nuclear power. But the United States and other countries have raised concerns that Tehran is concealing a nuclear weapons program. At the United Nations on Wednesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Iran and the three European Union countries to keep talking and avoid "any steps that would lead to further escalation."

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree renouncing any desire for nuclear weapons and declared their "production, stockpiling and use" would be counter to Islam.

On Wednesday, Iran's chief delegate to the U.N. atomic watchdog agency, Cyrus Nasseri, warned that world oil prices could rise higher if the West tries to block Iran's nuclear program, according to a Western diplomat who attended discussions in Vienna.

On Thursday, Nasseri struck a more reassuring note.

"We believe that any facility that is under the full scope of monitoring of the [IAEA] is safe, and the agency can and does provide credible assurances that it is and remains proliferation free," he said. "The operation in Isfahan will continue under the full scope of safeguards. We maintain, at this stage, the suspension at the enrichment facility in Natanz to keep the door open for negotiations."

Iranian officials also have hinted privately that they could either help -- or hinder -- the West's woes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Despite the concerns over Iran's nuclear program, IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told CNN that the larger issue is "Iran's relationship with the rest of the world," and "ultimately" the United States -- which has no diplomatic relations with Iran -- would be required to enter the European-led negotiations.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signatory nations -- which include Iran -- are allowed to develop nuclear power under the watchful eyes of the IAEA. The IAEA says that although it is making progress, Iran's past lack of candor about its program has left some doubt about its current work. The voluntary suspension, Gwozdecky said, had been a welcome confidence-building measure.

Bush once named Iran, along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, part of an "axis of evil." North Korea pulled out of the treaty and restarted its nuclear weapons program. It is now believed to have built some bombs.

The only states that have declared they have nuclear weapons but have not signed the treaty are India and Pakistan. Israel, which neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons but is widely believed to have a significant arsenal, also is not a signatory.

CNN's Walter Rodgers, Elise Labott and Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report

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