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By Louis Charbonneau
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is only intended to generate electricity, is an attempt to force the world to acknowledge it as a regional power, U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei said on Wednesday.
"They believe that the nuclear know-how brings prestige, brings power, and they would like to see the U.S. engaging them," he told a forum on nuclear disarmament. "Unfortunately that holds some truth. Iran has been taken seriously since they have developed their program."
Saying Iran's nuclear program was a "means to an end," ElBaradei said Tehran "wants to be recognized as a regional power."
He reiterated the position of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. agency he has led for 12 years and leaves at the end of the month, that there is "no concrete evidence" Tehran is pursuing atomic weapons as Western countries suspect.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have tried for years to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for economic and political incentives. Tehran has so far refused to a halt the program.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, ElBaradei had little to say about talks on a draft nuclear fuel deal among Iran, Russia, the United States and France in Vienna for which he has become an unofficial mediator.
The IAEA fuel proposal calls for Iran to transfer most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France to turn it into fuel for a reactor that produces isotopes for treating cancer. But diplomats say Iran is reluctant to ship its uranium abroad.
ElBaradei said the proposed deal represented a "unique opportunity" for Iran and the United States to move beyond decades of tension and animosity. He said he hoped for an agreement before he leaves office.
He indicated Iran would have to respond soon to the offer, which he said could help Tehran demonstrate that its nuclear plans are peaceful. "It's an opportunity, but it's also a fleeting opportunity," he said.
U.S. and French officials have said negotiations with Tehran cannot drag on forever and have warned Iran it could face a fourth round of U.N. sanctions.
ElBaradei said he was convinced the Iranians were prepared at one point to stop their enrichment program but that the previous U.S. administration and the three European powers missed an opportunity to end the standoff by imposing conditions on Iran that were "impossible to accept."
"They were ready to stop at an R&D (research and development) level ... that could have not have created any concern for the international community," he said.
President George W. Bush's administration was reluctant to engage Iran, although it relaxed that policy in its final years.
Bush's successor, Barack Obama, has reversed that position, telling Tehran he is ready to engage Iran's leaders without preconditions. Tehran has reacted coolly so far.
Some Western diplomats who have followed the Iran nuclear issue for years have said they do not believe Iran had seriously considered suspending its enrichment program.
ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who vehemently opposed Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, made clear he believed Bush's policy of refusing to negotiate with either Iran or North Korea was a massive failure.
"Thinking that I shouldn't talk to people I disagree with, not understanding that dialogue is the only way to change behaviour, has led us to where we are -- a total mess."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)