VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ The United States wants its allies to join in a formal protest against the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency for suggesting that Iran be allowed to keep some elements of its uranium enrichment program, diplomats said Tuesday.
They said Washington fears the comments from the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency could undermine U.N. Security Council's effort to pressure Tehran into fully scrapping enrichment.
The Americans apparently are concerned Mohamed ElBaradei's statements could exacerbate traditional splits between Russia and China and the United States, Britain and France, the three other permanent Security Council members.
While the Western council members have traditionally pushed for tough sanctions on Iran, opposition by Moscow and Beijing has led them to settle for watered-down sanctions less rigid than they originally proposed since the first set was agreed on Dec. 23.
The U.S. mission to the IAEA had no immediate comment beyond confirming that mission head Gregory L. Schulte was in Washington for ``consultations.''
Diplomats, who insisted on anonymity because of the delicate nature of the issue, spoke to The Associated Press before the release of a report from ElBaradei that could act as a trigger for a third set of Security Council sanctions on Iran.
Their revelations exposed a hardening of positions on how to deal with Iran's enrichment program, which potentially could produce material for nuclear bombs. Iran denies that is its goal, saying it wants only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity.
In public remarks over the past two weeks, ElBaradei said he feels it is too late to force Tehran to scrap its enrichment program as demanded by the Security Council and argued instead for implementing inspection safeguards to prevent an expansion of the program.
``I believe that (U.N.) demand has been superseded by events,'' ElBaradei told the Spanish newspaper ABC. Instead, he said, ``the important thing now is to concentrate on Iran not taking it to industrial scale.''
Iran's ultimate stated goal is running 54,000 centrifuges to churn out enriched uranium _ enough for dozens of nuclear warheads a year.
Some members of the IAEA's decision-making 35-nation board share ElBaradei's view. But the U.S. and its closest board allies, including Britain, France, Australia, Canada and Japan, fear such comments could weaken Security Council resolve on punishing Iran for defying the U.N. demand.
Agency officials refused to comment on details of the report ahead of its release to board members and the Security Council. But it was expected to confirm information leaked over the past weeks that Iran has demanded the demand for a suspension of enrichment and expanded that work.
With the council's deadline for Iranian compliance coming Thursday, the report could set the stage for further sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Despite Iranian insistence its nuclear program has only peaceful intentions, it has been hit with two sets of U.N. sanctions because of suspicions bred by nearly two decades of Tehran's clandestine nuclear activities, including questionable black-market acquisitions of equipment and blueprints that appear linked to weapons plans.
The diplomats said Tuesday that the IAEA's report would likely confirm that Iran has assembled more than 1,600 centrifuges at its underground facility at Natanz and is running about 1,300 of them, producing small amounts of uranium enriched to about 5%.
While that level is far below the 90% needed to produce weapons, the number of centrifuges running _ and producing enriched material _ is grounds for concern for the Security Council because it documents an expanding and functioning program.
The last report from ElBaradei three months ago put the number of connected centrifuges at around 1,000 and said no enrichment had begun.
One of the diplomats said the report would additionally likely suggest that Iranian experts had ironed out many of the glitches hamstringing enrichment efforts only a few months ago that had caused breakdowns in experimental, smaller-scale centrifuge operations.
``This is a program that is well on its way to full development,'' he said. ``And if they can enrich to 5%, there is no potential limit to how high they can enrich.''