VIENNA,(Reuters) – Iran vowed on Thursday not to bow to Western pressure, hours before a U.N. watchdog was expected to report Tehran had defied a deadline to halt work which the West fears could help it build nuclear bombs.
“(The West) should know the Iranian nation will not yield to pressure and not accept any violation of its rights,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech in Iran.
Iran has said it has a legal right to enrich nuclear fuel, will never abandon the programme and aims only to make electricity. The West suspects a disguised weapons project and the U.N. Security Council has ordered it to suspend the work.
“Arrogant powers want to stop our nation’s progress … I am telling them that they are wrong,” Ahmadinejad said.
Washington says world powers are poised to begin discussing punitive measures next week against Iran if, as expected, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports Tehran has ignored the U.N. demand to stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31.
As time was running out, Iran launched one of the project’s cornerstones, a heavy-water production plant, and pressed ahead with enriching uranium — albeit in small, insignificant amounts — at its Natanz pilot centrifuge site, diplomats said.
But Iran, in an Aug. 22 reply to an offer from six world powers of trade incentives not to enrich, suggested it was open to negotiations on the scope of its programme.
That has spurred some U.S. allies in the European Union to ask for exploratory talks with Tehran instead of resorting quickly to sanctions at the Council, Western diplomats said.
“This is to gain more time and postpone the expected sanctions,” one said, reflecting an underlying European Union preference to find a compromise with Iran rather than isolate one of the West’s biggest oil suppliers.
In a possible nod to EU concerns, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that even if sanctions discussions began, Iran could still opt to halt enrichment work and spur broader negotiations to implement the package of inducements.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s spokeswoman said he might speak by telephone with Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani before the deadline passed, and they could meet afterward, to try to clarify Tehran’s response.
“Iran has the necessary capacity to deal with any challenge created by sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was quoted as saying by state television.
“For the past 27 years, Iran has been under unwritten sanctions,” he said, referring to an existing U.S. embargo that did not prevent Tehran launching a nuclear programme. “The nation knows how to shake off pressure.”
The Security Council has asked Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the nuclear watchdog IAEA, to spell out on Aug. 31 if Iran has complied with the deadline set in a July 31 resolution.
Concerns about Iran’s intentions have been fanned by its record of hiding sensitive nuclear work from the IAEA for 18 years, failure to cooperate fully with agency probes and calls for Israel’s destruction, Western officials say.
ElBaradei may state that Iran has stonewalled IAEA inquiries into the nature of its nuclear activity to a standstill, one senior diplomat close to the agency said.
Iran is withholding answers to IAEA questions as bargaining chips for crunch talks with the big powers, diplomats say.
IAEA probe targets since 2003 include plutonium experiments, alleged administrative links between processing of uranium ore, explosives tests and a missile warhead design, and black-market acquisitions of parts for centrifuge enrichment machines.
Moscow and Beijing, keen to protect heavy energy contracts with Tehran and seeing no imminent threat from its nuclear programme, urged a return to diplomacy after Iran’s careful response to the incentives package.
One EU diplomat said Iran had a clear interest in seeking a meeting with the EU after Aug. 31 to blur the U.N. deadline, suck the Europeans into talks about talks and push back any consideration of punitive action.
The U.S. military has assessed Iran is 5-8 years away from mastering the means to build a nuclear bomb, giving the Bush administration time to consider whether to carry out air strikes to smash the programme, the Washington Times reported.
Washington’s key allies oppose military action, fearing it would ignite the Middle East while only delaying but not destroying Iran’s nuclear advance. Iran’s known atomic sites are widely dispersed and heavily defended.
Oil prices edged up to $70.47 a barrel on Thursday as the sanctions risk grew against the world’s fourth-biggest crude exporter.