Iran Leader rejects UN call to stop enrichment

By Edmund Blair

TEHRAN- Iran will pursue uranium enrichment in defiance of outside pressure, its president said on Thursday, a day before the U.N. nuclear watchdog delivers a verdict on whether Tehran has met U.N. Security Council demands.

“If you think

by frowning at us, by issuing resolutions … you can impose anything on the Iranian nation or force it to abandon its obvious right, you still don’t know its power,” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in northwest Iran.

“We have obtained the technology for producing nuclear fuel … No one can take it away from our nation,” he added.

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is widely expected to tell the council and the agency’s board on Friday that Iran has not stopped purifying uranium or satisfied IAEA queries as the top U.N. body asked a month ago.

The West accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian programme. Tehran, which denies the charge, said this month it had processed uranium to the level used in power stations for the first time and planned large-scale enrichment.

The United States, backed by Britain and France, favours limited sanctions if Iran refuses to halt enrichment very soon. Russia and China, the U.N. Security Council’s other two veto-holding permanent members, have so far opposed any embargo.

Rather than pushing for sanctions immediately, the Western powers may put forward a resolution to make U.N. demands set out in a March 29 council statement legally binding.

They would propose punitive measures if Iran did not comply reasonably promptly, said a council diplomat in New York.

SECURITY COUNCIL ROLE

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after talks in the Siberian city of Tomsk, both emphasised the need for diplomacy to solve the Iran standoff, but differed over the Security Council’s role.

After Merkel had stressed the council’s importance in the dispute, Putin pointedly said at their joint news conference:

“We think that the IAEA must continue to play a major, key role and it must not shrug off its responsibilities to resolve such questions and shift them onto the U.N. Security Council.”

However, the Russian leader did not reiterate Moscow’s long-stated opposition to sanctions, keeping his options open.

Merkel said she expected foreign ministers from the five permanent Security Council members and Germany to meet to discuss the IAEA report early next month.

China gave no sign it was ready to line up behind Western powers seeking sanctions against the Islamic Republic, but analysts said it was unlikely to block their way.

Again advocating negotiations, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing called for calm, restraint and patience.

“A diplomatic solution is the correct choice and is in the interests of all parties,” spokesman Qin Gang said. “China urges all parties to avoid measures that could worsen the situation.”

China wants the IAEA board to consider ElBaradei’s report before the Security Council takes up the issue, but several analysts said Beijing would be reluctant to scuttle a council resolution on Iran and risk a rift with Washington and Brussels.

NATO foreign ministers meeting on Thursday were expected to assess the scope for tougher action on Iran, diplomats said.

“It is an opportunity to confer,” said a senior alliance diplomat of the two-day meeting in the Bulgarian capital Sofia where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet counterparts from European powers and Russia.

While the United States is keeping military options open in case diplomacy fails, NATO commanders stress they have not been charged at any level to study plans for the use of force.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday Iran would strike at U.S. interests worldwide if it is attacked.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, due to meet U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday, ruled out any role for his ex-Soviet state in any potential military attack on neighbouring Iran. — Reuter