The West is "hyping" the perceived nuclear threat from Iran, the former head of the UN atomic watchdog Mohamed El-Baradei said in an interview Tuesday.
"There's a lot of a hype in this debate," El-Baradei told the Austrian news agency APA.
The Egyptian-born diplomat, who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency for 12 years until November 2009, pointed to a US intelligence report released in 2007 which suggested Iran had indeed been working on a nuclear weapons programme but abandoned it 2003.
"This assessment is still accurate today," El-Baradei said in comments reproduced in German.
El-Baradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for this work at the IAEA in 2005, did not rule out that the Islamic Republic had indeed thought about building a bomb in the 1980s.
At the time, Iran was engaged in a "terrible war" with Iraq, which had used chemical weapons, he argued.
"Every other country in this situation would have had to think about how to defend itself," he said.
In the meantime, however, Iran's atomic programme was merely the means "to become a key player in the Middle East."
Western powers accuse Iran of seeking to build a bomb under the guise of a civilian nuclear power programme, a charge Tehran has steadfastly denied.
Despite multiple United Nations resolutions and four rounds of international sanctions, the Islamic republic is enriching uranium, a process which can be used to make the fuel for nuclear reactors as well as the fissile material for an atomic bomb.
"The Iranians are of the opinion that uranium enrichment is a means to an end," El-Baradei said.
If a country has enrichment technology, "it can develop nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time. And (Tehran believes) that this sends a strong signal to its neighbours and the rest of the world," he said.
Furthermore, it could force the United States back to the negotiating table after Tehran and Washington broke off diplomatic ties 30 years ago.
There was a lot of suspicion between the two capitals which must be dispelled, El-Baradei said.
During his three terms as IAEA director general, El-Baradei frequently came under fire, not least from Washington, for being too soft on Iran.
The atomic watchdog has been investigating Iran's nuclear programme for eight years and is still not in a position to say whether it is entirely peaceful as Tehran claims.