VIENNA (Reuters) - He may be staid and cautious in public, but the new U.N. nuclear watchdog chief has wasted no time putting bite in the agency's approach to Iran after what Western powers say was a lack of backbone under his predecessor.
In a report on Iran on Thursday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano said his staff suspected Iran may be working now on developing a nuclear-armed missile.
In adding the heft of the independent nuclear inspectorate to Western suspicions of an active Iranian nuclear arms quest for the first time, Amano has charted a harder-hitting path diverging from the relative ambivalence of Mohamed ElBaradei.
Amano's thrust may strengthen Western powers' case for tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran soon. Hitherto sceptical Russia voiced "alarm" on Friday at Tehran's behaviour.
"This is definitely a tightening of the thumbscrew, more crisply drafted than ElBaradei's reports, spelling out that there is so much material that it's increasingly hard to reach any conclusion other than this is a weapons programme," a senior European diplomat told Reuters.
A reserved technocrat by nature, Amano, who took over the IAEA on Dec. 1, stopped short of passing judgment on Iran to preserve the U.N. watchdog's impartiality, given that no "smoking gun" proof is known to exist.
But he employed more precise language to telegraph what IAEA sleuths have felt privately for some time -- that Iran not only researched nuclear warhead designs in the past but continues to do so now to master the means to "weaponize" uranium enrichment.
In so doing, Amano drew obliquely on a classified analysis by IAEA proliferation experts that says Iran has apparently developed the know-how to set off an atomic bomb, although it falls short of fashioning a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Western intelligence passed to the IAEA is so consistent and credible that it "raises concern about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," Amano wrote.
He called on Iran to stop stonewalling IAEA investigators' requests for access and clarifications "without further delay".
IAEA reports in the years under ElBaradei's control did not use the the words "current" or "undisclosed" -- a term suggesting deliberate concealment -- but "undeclared", which might cover inadvertent failure to heed transparency rules.
Amano did not dilute the impact of this update on the IAEA probe into "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear work by flagging Iran's blanket denials, denunciations of "forged" intelligence, or the fact the intelligence has not been fully authenticated -- as ElBaradei's reports often did.
Amano's shift may have pleased IAEA chief inspector Olli Heinonen who long pushed for a franker public airing of evidence on Iran but was restrained by ElBaradei, some diplomats say.
"It was written to be much clearer on the lack of cooperation from Iran, by stripping out acknowledgements of routine Iranian cooperation with (routine inspections)," another European diplomat accredited to the IAEA said.
"The circumlocutions of previous reports are gone, making it harder for Iran to cherry-pick any positives, leaving less room for some countries to rationalize Iran's course, give it the benefit of the doubt," said a senior Western diplomat.
He was alluding to developing nations that have resented and resisted Western-led moves to isolate and punish Iran over its nuclear behaviour, championing Iran's proclaimed right to a civilian nuclear energy programme.
ElBaradei, who ran the IAEA for 12 years and became a celebrity after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, was outspoken in his wariness of Western intelligence after erroneous or doctored reports were used by the United States to justify the Iraq war.
His pre-war testimony to the U.N. Security Council saying that IAEA inspectors had no evidence of an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programme was shrugged off by the Bush administration in its determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
ElBaradei also vocally opposed sanctions against Iran, arguing they would discourage, not spur, Iranian cooperation and turn into a slippery slope towards war. Washington and close allies accused him of improperly politicising the IAEA.
By contrast, Amano as Japanese ambassador to the IAEA shared the tough Western line towards Iran and was not inclined to challenge the available intelligence, diplomats said.
They had forecast a more factually blunt report from Amano.
His tenor was also driven by what diplomats said was anger and consternation within the IAEA over Iran's sudden launch last week of higher-scale enrichment, embarking on a possible path to bomb-grade uranium, without giving the statutory advance notice to inspectors working under restricted conditions in Iran.
"The tone and reach of this report reflects Amano's no-nonsense approach, putting on paper, in the words of a neutral U.N. body, what Western governments have been long saying about Iran," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior proliferation analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Still, Amano as IAEA chief will have to demonstrate freedom from bias, to deflect the suspicions of nations who opposed his bid to succeed ElBaradei that he would let Western powers hijack the agency for political purposes, such as punishing Iran.
ElBaradei was a respected interlocutor and deal-broker for both Iran and the world powers. Amano will need to develop a workable rapport with Tehran to preserve inspector access and promote ways of defusing its standoff with the West.
Editing by Andrew Roche