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UN sets nuclear deadline for Iran

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By Louis Charbonneau

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog on Friday set Iran an October 31 deadline to prove it had no secret atomic weapons program, prompting Tehran to threaten a "deep review" of its cooperation with the agency.

Following intense U.S. pressure for action against Iran, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution setting the deadline. Iran's delegation stormed out of the closed-door meeting, accusing Washington of having new invasion plans after Iraq (news - web sites).

The toughly worded resolution gives Iran -- branded by the United States last year as part of an "axis of evil" with pre-war Iraq and North Korea (news - web sites) -- one last chance to prove it has been complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The United States says Tehran has violated the treaty in its effort to develop atomic weapons secretly. Iran, which denies the allegation, could face economic sanctions if reported to the U.N. Security Council for breach of its NPT obligations.

"We will have no choice but to have a deep review of our existing level and extent of engagement with the agency vis a vis this resolution," said Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in Vienna, Ali Akbar Salehi.

His comments were in a written speech he distributed to reporters as he left the IAEA boardroom just before the resolution was passed.

Salehi insisted Iran is a loyal member of the NPT community.

"We reject the ultimatum in this (resolution)," he said, adding Iran "is a fervent subscriber to the NPT, a loyal party to it and a staunch promoter of the Middle East as a nuclear free zone."

After the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Salehi said that it was clear the administration of President Bush (news - web sites) "entertains the idea of invasion of yet another territory, as they aim to re-engineer and reshape the entire Middle East."

IRAN SEEN STAYING IN NPT

Although Iran's statement to the board was harsh and appeared to imply that it might pull out of the IAEA or even the NPT, diplomats said that it would probably continue cooperation with the IAEA and would accept limited inspections.

"They wouldn't likely pull out of the IAEA at this point," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "This would be too much."

Salehi also lashed out at Israel. "Among those who have pursued and produced nuclear weapons outside The Five (official nuclear weapons states), Israel gets way with murder. It is pampered instead of being chastised."

Israel, like India and Pakistan, has never signed the NPT. It has also never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, though non-proliferation experts say no one doubts Israel has them. The U.S., China, Britain, France and Russia are "The Five."

Washington had originally lobbied for the board to report Iran to the council this week, but backed off when it saw the majority of board members wanted to give Iran a final chance and a deadline to prove it had been complying with the NPT.

The Malaysian ambassador to the IAEA, Hussein Haniff, said that the choice to adopt the resolution without a vote meant that individual countries had the right to issue their own interpretations of its text.

One of the sticking points in negotiations on the resolution was its implied threat that Tehran must enable the IAEA to come to a "definitive" conclusion on Tehran's nuclear plans by November or go to the Security Council for possible sanctions.

The Malaysian envoy handed out a written statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has 15 seats on the board, which said that NAM interpreted the words "definitive conclusions" to mean "appropriate or precise conclusions."

NAM had tried to get the United States to make this change in the resolution, but Washington refused, saying it would have weakened it and enabled Tehran to escape going to the Security Council in November.

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