VIENNA Iran wants the ability to build nuclear weapons to gain the reputation of a major power in the Middle East, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said in a BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday.
Tehran denied the assertion. But International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told Iran at an IAEA meeting that it would not be trusted unless "you go the extra mile" and lift restrictions on U.N. inspections.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last week has cast doubt on Western powers' hope of a dialogue with Iran aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment program, which Iran says is for generating electricity only.
ElBaradei said the Islamic Republic sees a nuclear breakout ability as an "insurance policy" against perceived threats from neighboring countries or the United States.
"My gut feeling is that Iran definitely would like to have the technology ... that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so," he told the BBC.
The enrichment process can be configured to produce fuel either for nuclear power plants or weapons.
"(Iran) wants to send a message to its neighbors, it wants to send a message to the rest of the world: yes, don't mess with us, we can have nuclear weapons if we want it," said ElBaradei.
"But the ultimate aim of Iran, as I understand it, is that they want to be recognized as a major power in the Middle East and they are. "This is to them the road to get that recognition to power and prestige and ... an insurance policy against what they heard in the past about regime change, axis of evil."
"He's absolutely wrong. We don't have any intention of having nuclear weapons at all," Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told an impromptu news conference outside a meeting in Vienna of the IAEA's 35-nation governing body.
NOT IN IRAN'S DOCTRINE
"Nuclear weapons are not in our defense doctrine. We do not consider nuclear weapons any advantage ... we will never have (them). But we are going to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes ... We will continue fuel cycle activities without any interruption because Iran has a legitimate need."
Soltanieh said Iran had mastered enrichment technology and Western powers "should cope with this reality. They are unhappy about these facts? It is their problem, it is a reality."
In an apparent slip-up during his exchange with reporters, Soltanieh said, in English: "There is no difference between any factions or groups of the Iranian nation on the inalienable right of nuclear weapons."
Pressed by Reuters in a phone call afterwards to clarify his remark, he said: "I said our peaceful uses of nuclear energy ... and of course our condemnation of nuclear weapons."
The United States told the IAEA's governing board Iran now appeared to be in the position to "weaponize" enrichment.
"Iran is now either very near or in possession of sufficient low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon, if the decision were made to (further) enrich it to weapons-grade," U.S. envoy Geoffrey Pyatt said.
To do that, Iran would have to adjust its enrichment plant to yield bomb-ready nuclear fuel and miniaturize the material to fit into a warhead -- technical steps that could take from six months to a year or more, nuclear analysts say.
Ahmadinejad indicated on Sunday nuclear policy would not change in his second term since the issue "belongs in the past."
ElBaradei rejected this stance. Gazing at Soltanieh in the 35-nation IAEA governors meeting, he said: "If you want to build confidence, you would do (wide-ranging snap inspections). You have to help me... (Otherwise), you are penalizing yourself."
ElBaradei also bemoaned the IAEA's inability to enforce transparency in suspect countries. "We are called the watchdog but we don't bark at all if we do not have the authority."
Six world powers have offered Iran trade and other incentives to halt enrichment. Iran has not engaged the offer and says its enrichment program is non-negotiable.
(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths in London; Editing by Richard Balmforth)