VIENNA Any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities may lead to it withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a pact aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear arms, a senior Iranian official said on Friday.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, also suggested Iran in such a case could kick out IAEA inspectors and install its uranium enrichment centrifuges in "more secure" places.
His comments may strengthen concerns among many Western nuclear experts that military action against Iran aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons may backfire and only drive its entire nuclear program underground.
There has been persistent speculation that Israel might bomb Iran, which it accuses of seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies the charge and says Israel's assumed atomic arsenal is a threat to regional security.
If attacked, "there is a possibility that the (Iranian) parliament forces the government to stop the (U.N. nuclear) agency inspections or even in the worse scenario withdraw from the NPT," Soltanieh said in a statement in English submitted to a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors.
Asked about Soltanieh's comments, Israel's ambassador to the IAEA, Ehud Azoulay, said: "I believe that they are going to do it anyhow, in the near future, so I'm not surprised.
"When they make their first nuclear explosion they will have to withdraw, I believe," he told reporters, adding he thought Iran was "following the steps" of North Korea.
North Korea was the first country to withdraw from the NPT, in 2003, and has denied IAEA access to its atomic sites. It carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and in 2009.
Iran, one of the world's largest oil producers, says its nuclear program is a peaceful bid to generate electricity.
Like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel has never signed the NPT. It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear arms, although non-proliferation and security analysts believe it has several hundred nuclear weapons.
"MASTER OF ENRICHMENT"
The Jewish state has said it would sign the treaty and renounce atomic weaponry only as part of a broader peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
Under the 189-nation NPT, which came into force in 1970, non-nuclear weapons states commit to not develop such arms.
Israel and the United States see Iran as the world's main nuclear proliferation danger. Iran and Arab states say Israel's nuclear capabilities threaten regional peace and security.
In a defiant 11-page statement which prompted one Western diplomat to say he was "very pessimistic" about a new round of talks between Iran and the IAEA in mid-December, Soltanieh said the Iranian nuclear file "has to be closed immediately" and U.N. inspections work regarding the country returned to "routine".
"This is the only way that encourages Iran to show more flexibility in taking voluntary steps," Soltanieh said.
The IAEA is seeking to resume a long-stalled investigation into suspicions that Iran has conducted atom bomb research, and Western officials accuse Tehran of stonewalling the inquiry.
Soltanieh said nuclear weapons have no use and only creates vulnerability, and that any military action against Iran would not stop it from enriching uranium.
Refined uranium can have both civilian and military purposes, and a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 have demanded that Iran suspend the activity, something the Islamic state has repeatedly ruled out.
"Iran is master of enrichment technology ... it can easily replace damaged facilities," Soltanieh said. But, he added, Iran is "well prepared to find a negotiated face-saving solution and a breakthrough from the existing stalemate".
Diplomacy between Iran and six world powers - the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain - aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the decade-old dispute has been deadlocked since a June meeting that ended without success.
Both sides now say they want to resume talks soon, after the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama, and diplomats expect a new meeting in Istanbul in December or January.
Iran has faced a tightening of Western trade sanctions which the United States and its allies hope will force it to curb its nuclear program. Soltanieh said: "Western sanctions have had no effect whatsoever on the enrichment activities."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)