Los Angeles Times: The U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday that inspectors had uncovered no new evidence of concealed nuclear activities or an atomic weapons program in Iran, though it cautioned that the agency could not rule out covert activities. The findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency were contained in a confidential report revealed the day after Iran's new pledge to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Los Angeles Times

Watchdog agency gives the country a qualified clean bill of health on covert activity. The report may thwart any U.S. push for sanctions.

By Douglas Frantz

ISTANBUL, Turkey - The U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday that inspectors had uncovered no new evidence of concealed nuclear activities or an atomic weapons program in Iran, though it cautioned that the agency could not rule out covert activities.

The findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency were contained in a confidential report revealed the day after Iran's new pledge to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The report's findings and Iran's promise to suspend enrichment could block U.S. attempts to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible economic sanctions when the nuclear agency board meets later this month, diplomats said.

Washington has accused Iran of using its nuclear program as a front to develop atomic weapons. The Iranian government has insisted that its goal is only to generate electricity.

The new report issued by the IAEA constituted a qualified clean bill of health for Iran and represented a setback for the United States.

"All the declared material in Iran has been accounted for and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities," according to a copy of the report provided to the Los Angeles Times by a Western diplomat. "The agency is, however, not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran."

The report says the agency lacks the legal authority to conduct the extensive inspections required to say with 100% assurance that Iran has no weapons program.

Despite the lingering concerns, two diplomats in Vienna said in telephone interviews that they did not expect the United States to be able to muster enough votes to refer Iran to the Security Council when the IAEA board meets Nov. 25 at its headquarters in Vienna.

"Barring some new surprise, which no one expects, Washington isn't going to get anything close to a majority of the 35 board members if they force the issue," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity

In Washington, a State Department spokesman indicated that the U.S. still had concerns about Iran's program.

"Our view has been and remains that given Iran's past behavior, that Iran needed to be referred to the Security Council," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "For years and even decades they had a covert nuclear program that was hidden. It constituted, in our view, a clear violation of their commitments.

"If they're trying to correct those violations now by some new promise," he added, "first you need to see those promises verified, and second of all we need to discuss with others at the board, in that case, what the appropriate action is."

The agreement Iran reached Sunday with Britain, France and Germany to halt enrichment was at least as important in stopping U.S. action as was the report.

Enrichment transforms uranium ore into material that can be used either to generate power or in atomic weapons.

The U.S. and its allies have expressed concerns that Iran was close to mastering the enrichment process and could be able to produce weapons-grade material within months.

Under the agreement negotiated with the European countries, Iran agreed to suspend all aspects of its enrichment program in exchange for a package of incentives on trade and peaceful nuclear technology, according to a description of the deal in the IAEA report.

Iran said that beginning Nov. 22, it would suspend the testing and manufacture of centrifuges, which purify uranium. Iran also agreed to stop installing new centrifuges at its pilot enrichment plant near Natanz. The plant has 1,274 centrifuges.

An IAEA official said inspectors were in Iran and would verify the suspension.

A similar agreement reached between Iran and the same European countries a year ago collapsed, and Iran continued to manufacture centrifuges and develop other aspects of its enrichment program.

Hassan Rowhani, Iran's chief negotiator with the Europeans, said on state television Monday that his country still intended to enrich uranium at some point. He said the suspension was expected to last months, not years.

Though the new IAEA report is a victory for Iran, the agency made it clear that suspicions remained. It said Iran would have to continue to cooperate fully to erase doubts created by what the agency called "extensive concealment" in recent months, including 14 instances of failing to report activities and material as required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The remaining questions about Iran's nuclear program focus on three distinct areas, the report says.

One is the origin of traces of weapons-grade uranium found at several sites in Iran. Tehran has said the traces came from contaminated Pakistani centrifuge components bought on the black market, but the report says not all are from Pakistan.

A second area of concern is the amount of work conducted by Tehran to develop advanced centrifuges intended to enrich uranium, the report says.

Finally, the report says inspectors are continuing to investigate attempts by Iran to obtain technology that could have been used for weapons work at a site near Tehran known as Lavizan Shiyan.

Iran said the facility was not involved in weapons work and that it was razed last year to make way for a park. The report says demolition at the site was so extensive that inspectors could not verify whether nuclear activities had taken place there.

Despite the ongoing inquiries, the report says the agency will no longer issue regular reports on Iran's compliance under the nonproliferation treaty.