VIENNA - Iran is not going to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon and the threat posed by its atomic program has been exaggerated, the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said in a published interview.
The West suspects Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapons capability under the guise of a declared civilian atomic energy program. Tehran rejects the charge, saying its uranium enrichment program is a peaceful way to generate electricity.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said there was no concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program.
"But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped," he told the specialist Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
ElBaradei said there was concern about Iran's future nuclear intentions and that the Islamic Republic needs to be more transparent with the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog.
"But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far," said ElBaradei, 67, who will step down in November after 12 years in office.
The interview was conducted in July but released late on Tuesday.
Last week, an IAEA report lent some weight to Western intelligence reports that Iran had studied ways to make atom bombs although the agency has repeatedly said it does not have concrete proof of a weapons agenda.
Iran has refused to provide documentation, access to sites or to nuclear officials for interviews which the IAEA has requested to reach conclusions about the intelligence materials.
In the interview, ElBaradei said there was an urgent need to follow up on U.S. President Barack Obama's proposal for a dialogue between Washington and Tehran, but that resorting to harsher sanctions against Iran if it does not engage would achieve little.
ElBaradei said he had gleaned from experiences dealing with North Korea and Iraq that dialogue was a more effective tool than sanctions. He was not talking about a specific country.
"Another lesson is to use sanctions only as a last resort and to avoid sanctions that hurt innocent civilians. As we saw in Iraq, sanctions only denied vulnerable, innocent civilians food and medicine," he said.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator was quoted as saying on Tuesday that Tehran has prepared an "updated nuclear proposal" and is ready to talk to world powers. The West has said it is still waiting for details.
Germany is to host high-level talks on Iran's nuclear program on Wednesday with the United States, China, France, Britain and Russia. Western powers are expected to push China and Russia to back a fourth round of U.N. sanctions which could target Iran's vital energy sector.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Hemming)