Following talks with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the weekend, Iran has agreed to answer remaining questions about its nuclear program within four weeks, the UN watchdog announced Sunday.
The announcement comes in the wake of an apparent confrontation between Iranian patrols and US warships in the Strait of Hormuz, and in the midst of US President George Bush's tour of the Middle East.
IAEA head Mohammed El Baradei, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who met Friday and Saturday in Tehran, "agreed that a "work plan" on ending the Iran nuclear standoff should be completed in that window, reported Agence France-Presse.
The deputy chief of Iran's atomic energy agency, Mohammed Saidi, confirmed the timeframe, the country's state news agency IRNA reported.
"Iran will respond within the space of four weeks to the remaining questions so that the IAEA can make a transparent report on the Iranian nuclear programme," said Saidi.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has nothing to hide, and that's why it does not fear answering the remaining questions. I am optimistic."
However, diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, expressed scepticism that Iran would come clean about its nuclear activities within the new timeframe.
And the United States said the agreement does not go far enough, insisting the Islamic republic suspend uranium enrichment.
The setting of a timetable follows Iran's promise late last year to resolve all issues concerning its nuclear program.
Iran is already under UN Security Council sanctions over its controversial nuclear program, which Western nations suspect is being used as a cover for weapons development. Now, the US is advocating additional penalties, despite a recent US intelligence report that said Iran had stopped its weapons program as of 2003, reports the Associated Press.
ElBaradei also was given new information on Iran's "new generation of centrifuges" during weekend talks with Iranian leaders, said his spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming. That issue is a priority for the agency as it tries to establish how far advanced Iran is in developing the technology.
Announcing the deadline, Fleming spoke only in general terms, without mentioning what was being now probed by agency experts under a plan agreed to last summer. But diplomats said that investigation was now in its final stage, focusing on programs with possible weapons applications.
... Separately, however, a senior diplomat expressed doubt ElBaradei was able to persuade the Iranians to freeze enrichment and noted Western efforts for additional U.N. sanctions against the Islamic republic would continue unless that condition was met. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the issue.
Following the talks, Iran wants the Security Council to hand its nuclear case back to the IAEA, reports Iranian Press TV.
While Iran has addressed queries about its nuclear activities in the past, including explanations for its plutonium experiments, it has yet to address questions about its current activities, reports Reuters. "The IAEA wants Iran to observe its additional protocol, which permits short-notice inspections at locations beyond declared nuclear sites.... Without it, the IAEA cannot verify that Iran's nuclear work is wholly peaceful."
The announcement essentially delayed for another month what had been an end-of-the-year deadline to disclose all of its nuclear work, including any covert or undeclared military research.
Over the past year and a half the Iranians have repeatedly made declarations that they would answer outstanding questions within a week, but each of those deadlines has passed with only partial answers offered.
Meanwhile, President Bush continued to criticize Iran about its purported nuclear ambitions, saying on Sunday from Abu Dhabi that Tehran "defies the UN and destabilises the region by refusing to be open and transparent about its nuclear programs and ambitions," reports Al Jazeera.
Calling Iran the "world's leading state sponsor of terror", he urged Arab states to join with the US to confront the danger "before it's too late".
Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that Israel would reject " 'no options' to block Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons." That may be the clearest indication yet that Mr. Olmert is willing to use military force against Iran, reports the Associated Press.
Just before President Bush arrived in Saudi Arabia, a leading Saudi newspaper "ruled out any attempt by the United States to use the oil-rich Gulf kingdom as a launchpad for a possible war on Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme," reports Agence France-Presse.
"This issue can be solved through diplomatic means and through dialogue," said the paper, which reflects the views of the Saudi authorities.
Bush on Friday began a four-nation Gulf tour as part of a Middle East trip to push for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians and to rally the support of his allies in the Sunni Muslim oil monarchies against the "threat" he says is posed by Shiite Muslim Iran.