TEHRAN Iran said on Saturday it would not back down "one iota" in its nuclear row with major powers, voicing defiance on the day of an informal deadline set by the West over Tehran's disputed atomic ambitions.
Western officials gave Tehran two weeks from July 19 to respond to their offer to hold off from imposing more U.N. sanctions on Iran if it froze any expansion of its nuclear work.
That would suggest a deadline of Saturday but Iran, which has repeatedly ruled out curbing its nuclear activities, dismissed the idea of having two weeks to reply.
The West accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear warheads under cover of a civilian power program. Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, denies the charge.
"In whichever negotiation we take part ... it is unequivocally with the view to the realization of Iran's nuclear right and the Iranian nation would not retreat one iota from its rights," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said.
He made the remark in a statement posted on the presidential website after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad visited Tehran a few weeks after he said in Paris he would respond to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's request and use his good relations with the Islamic Republic to help resolve the nuclear stand-off.
The statement quoted the Syrian leader as saying that based on international agreements, all countries had the right to enrich uranium and have nuclear power stations.
Enrichment can provide fuel for power plants, which Iran says is its aim, but also material for bombs if refined more.
The statement quoted Assad as saying what were important to Syria were international agreements relating to Iran's nuclear program.
"We have told the European countries that ... every country, including Iran, has the right to engage in uranium enrichment and to possess nuclear power stations based on agreements."
The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany in June offered Iran economic and other incentives to coax it into halting its most sensitive nuclear activities.
The freeze idea is aimed at getting preliminary talks started, although formal negotiations on the incentives package will not start before Iran stops enriching uranium.
Iran, whose refusal to halt the work has drawn three rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006, has rejected suspension in the past and has given no indication that it is ready for a freeze.
In Brussels, a European Union official said Iran had so far ignored the deadline, but the bloc is ready to wait a few more days for a reply. "What matters is that we get a clear answer quickly, it's not a matter of one day," said the official.
A White House spokeswoman said it was unfortunate the Iranians had not responded to the incentives offer: "It just further isolates their country," Dana Perino said in Washington.
Diplomats say new U.N. sanctions on Iran are unlikely before September and may not happen this year, though Western states may take tougher measures of their own. Russia, one of the six powers facing Iran, has also opposed a deadline.
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Ingrid Melander in Brussels and Washington bureau; editing by Andrew Roche)