He spoke on the same day that ministers of major powers meeting here struck a more conciliatory tone on Iran than heard in recent weeks. The meeting followed agreement Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council to give Iran 30 days to respond to requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, that it halt uranium enrichment research.
The United States and members of the European Union have made increasingly confrontational statements about what they claim is Iran's goal of eventually manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
"There is no military solution to this situation," said ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning director-general of the IAEA. "It's inconceivable. The only durable solution is a negotiated solution."
Russia and China, as well as several countries in the Middle East, have voiced concern that the U.S. and EU are pursuing tactics with Iran similar to those used in relation to Iraq a few years ago -- creating a sense of crisis that makes it easier to make the case for military action.
ElBaradei said the international community should act only on concrete information. He warned against a repetition of the 2003 experience with Iraq, when IAEA inspectors did not find signs of an active nuclear arms program but were ignored by the United States, which proceeded to use unsubstantiated intelligence to make the case for war. Since then, the IAEA has been proved right that Saddam Hussein did not possess any of the alleged weaponry.
"I work on facts," ElBaradei said in his remarks reported by Reuters news agency. "We fortunately were proven right in Iraq, we were the only ones that said at the time that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, and I hope this time people will listen to us."
Comments Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain made it clear that despite the Security Council's unity, deep ideological differences remained among the major powers over what the next steps should be. ElBaradei's comments seemed timed to influence them during the crucial monthlong period.
Britain, France and the U.S. have said they would be willing to level sanctions against Iran or ultimately use military force if Tehran continued to move forward in its effort to perfect uranium enrichment. Russia and China oppose any punitive actions at this point, a position they reiterated at Thursday's meeting, because they fear it would make Iran more confrontational and could lead to further turmoil in the Middle East.
The statement approved by the Security Council essentially buys the United Nations 30 days to figure out what to do if Iran remains defiant. Once the monthlong period ends, ElBaradei is required to issue another report on whether Iran has complied with the IAEA requests, which include: halting uranium enrichment research, answering questions about the nuclear program and ratifying IAEA regulations allowing U.N. nuclear inspectors more access to Iranian nuclear facilities and plants where parts are manufactured for its nuclear industry.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes such as civilian energy generation. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used to generate electricity, but enriched more intensively, it can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Rice took a somewhat more moderate tone toward Iran on Thursday than in other recent statements.
"This isn't the time to try and come to a conclusion about what the next step is," said Rice, speaking to reporters on the plane on her way to the meeting. "It's an opening discussion about those next steps.... A lot is going to depend on the Iranian reaction, and I would not at this point carve in stone anybody's decisions about what the next steps might be."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also held out a hand. "We all very much hope that Iran will seize the opportunity offered to [it] to resume negotiations.... If Iran were to enter upon the path of cooperation, then it can rely on us entering those negotiations in a constructive spirit," he said.
Iran's initial response to the Security Council statement was unbending. Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Thursday, "We will not, definitely, suspend again the enrichment."
Tehran, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. However, Iran's intentions have come under international scrutiny because it hid its nuclear program for 18 years, in violation of the treaty of which it had long been a signatory. Although Tehran is now largely in compliance with the treaty's requirements, the U.N. nuclear inspectors say there are still key questions Iran needs to answer about its program.
Tehran compounded international distrust when it ended nearly two years of negotiations with the European Union over a deal to halt its nuclear-fuel work altogether. Then, in January, Tehran resumed operations at a pilot uranium enrichment facility that it had suspended during the talks with the EU. It has begun enriching tiny quantities of uranium to test its centrifuges.
The IAEA, in its most recent report on Iran, said it could not rule out that Tehran had secret nuclear facilities or materials. The vague language underscores the chief problem for policymakers dealing with Iran: Key aspects of its program remain opaque.
In addition to the debate over Iran's intentions, analysts disagree over how fast Iran is moving to master the nuclear fuel cycle. Some administration and European officials have suggested that Iran could make enough enriched uranium for a bomb in three years. Many other experts say the technical difficulties would make such a short time frame almost impossible.
Russia and China, the two permanent Security Council members who are more closely allied to Tehran, want the IAEA, not the Security Council, to take the lead. That would diminish the likelihood of a rapid Security Council showdown with threats of sanctions and international humiliation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said the IAEA must determine whether Iran is pursuing only the civilian use of nuclear power or attempting to build a bomb.
"Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East," Lavrov said.
"All of us have very legitimate concerns. We wish to meet a peaceful solution."
Echoing Lavrov's sentiments, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo said Iran's nuclear program was "among the most difficult and complicated problems in today's world."
"This requires time, persistence and wisdom.... There has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East."
Fleishman reported from Berlin and Rubin from Vienna.