VIENNA - Iran's envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog urged it to exercise restraint at a meeting starting today while Tehran studies an offer from world powers to avert a showdown over its disputed atomic programme.
Diplomats said the 35 nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency's governing board planned a debate on Iran but to keep it low-key and pass no resolutions to avoid upsetting delicate diplomacy over the powers' overture to Tehran.
Four months ago, the dispute over Iranian nuclear fuel work escalated when the board voted to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council over its history of hiding atomic research and obstructing IAEA investigations.
Last week, six big powers offered Iran a batch of economic and security incentives to shelve a uranium-enrichment programme that could yield fuel for nuclear power plants or, eventually, atomic bombs. If Iran refuses, it could face UN sanctions.
Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said on Sunday the package contained positive elements but also "problems and ambiguous points". He said the precondition that Iran stop all enrichment work, which it has ruled out, had to be clarified. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based board, urged it to refrain in debate from "politically motivated statements that could spoil the environment" for a diplomatic way out of the volatile impasse.
"Let's not have repetitive allegations. The other side has to be careful to do nothing to deteriorate the situation. We need a restrained, cool and constructive debate," he said in an interview with Reuters on Sunday.
The meeting will open with a keynote address by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei in which he was likely to again urge Iran and the major powers to strike a face-saving compromise.
Western leaders earlier ruled out any indigenous atomic development drive in Iran. But the new package would allow for one after an open-ended halt to enrichment work, probably lasting years, and full cooperation with IAEA inspectors.
The IAEA board expected to discuss Iran at midweek after other routine business.
"No one is expecting fireworks. The priority is not to distract from the package on the table for Iran - the best chance, maybe the last one, for a non-confrontational solution," said an IAEA diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"IAEA missions are under orders to stay calm until the next move occurs. The next move is obviously Iran's to make."
US President George W. Bush has said Tehran has weeks, not months, to decide whether to accept the package.
Iran says its nuclear programme aims to produce low-enriched uranium for electricity generation. The West suspects Iran, with the world's second largest reserves of oil and gas, is bent on enriching uranium to the high level used to detonate atom bombs.