by Michael Adler
VIENNA - UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei angrily denied Saturday charges he had collaborated with Iran ahead of publishing written reports on his investigation of the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program.
"We never show a report to any single member" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "not the least of course an inspected country," ElBaradei told AFP in a telephone interview.
ElBaradei was reacting to news reports that he had heeded Iranian demands to drop mentions of IAEA requests to visit the Parchin military site and Iran's use of the strategically sensitive metal beryllium in a report he had made to the IAEA board on September 1.
AFP had in September quoted a US official as saying the IAEA had dropped the mention of Parchin in the written report, as well as a reference to concern about Iran's work with beryllium.
The United States wants the IAEA to take Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions for what Washington says is a covert nuclear weapons program but ElBaradei says the "jury is still out" on whether Tehran's program is peaceful or not.
Diplomats said there were elements in the administration of US President George W. Bush who feel ElBaradei, who is Egyptian and a Muslim, is too soft on Iran and oppose his winning a third term in 2005 as IAEA chief.
The official US position is that heads of international organizations should not serve more than two terms, as ElBaradei will have done by next year.
ElBaradei said it was a "gutter accusation" to accuse him of an Islamist bias.
He said whether a country he works on "is Muslim or Buddhist makes not an iota of difference," especially since IAEA reports are a "collective process" involving international teams of experts.
"All the Arab, Israeli, US, North Korean, Iraqi and Iranian media are criticizing me at one point or another and this just might show that we are doing the right thing," ElBaradei said, referring also to IAEA investigations of North Korea and Iraq's nuclear programs.
A US official has told AFP that a draft copy of the September IAEA report was actually given ahead of time to the Iranians, in order for them to suggest changes, in comments echoed by a diplomat from another IAEA member country.
ElBaradei also characterized this as a "gutter accusation."
"We don't leak to any single person outside the 10 or 20 people who are involved in the process," of drafting reports at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, ElBaradei said.
He said the IAEA did not "even discuss" the report ahead of time with Iran beyond technical requests for information.
The IAEA has issued seven written reports on Iran in an investigation which began in Febuary 2003. The reports are filed ahead of IAEA board of governors meetings that decide how tough the agency will be on Tehran over its nuclear program.
ElBaradei said items like Parchin and the question of beryllium metal do not make it to his reports until they are ready.
ElBaradei said the last report on Iran, a 28-page document released on November 15, contained "every piece of relevant information."
Iran is still refusing to allow IAEA inspectors to visit the Parchin military site, 30 kilometres (18 miles) southwest of Tehran, although ElBaradei said he expected the visit to take place soon.
US officials have said the Iranians may be testing in Parchin "high-explosive shaped charges with an inert core of depleted uranium" as a dry test for how a bomb with fissile material would work.
Beryllium has civilian applications but can also be used in combination with polonium, another metal, to make a neutron trigger for a nuclear bomb.