TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will press ahead with its nuclear path, the country’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday, speaking just before a deadline set by Western officials in a nuclear dispute.
Western powers gave Iran two weeks from July 19 to respond to their offer to hold off on imposing more U.N. sanctions on Iran if Tehran would freeze any expansion of its nuclear work.
That would suggest a deadline of Saturday, although Russia, one of the six powers facing Iran, has opposed a deadline and Iran dismissed the idea of having two weeks to reply.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in London that if Iran continued regardless, there should be an “immediate, firm and serious response” from European countries.
“I’m very disappointed about the latest statement made by Mr Khamenei ... about their intention to continue in any case with the nuclear program of enrichment of uranium,” he said.
Khamenei was quoted by radio as saying the West wanted to stop Iran mastering technology to make electricity.
“The Iranian nation by depending on its useful experience and advantages of 30 years of resistance does not pay any attention to such talk and will continue with its path,” said the leader, who has the last say in all state matters.
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.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the United Nations that tough sanctions should be used to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons but added that no options should be excluded.
There has been increasing speculation that either the United States or Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, though both have said force should be a last resort.
The freeze idea is aimed at getting preliminary talks started, although formal negotiations on the nuclear, trade and other incentives will not start before Iran suspends uranium enrichment, which has both civilian and military uses.
Iran has rejected suspension in the past and has given no indication so far that it is ready for a freeze.
Iran’s representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told reporters: “We have not found any legal, technical justification for stopping or suspension of any of (our) nuclear activity.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki dismissed the idea of a deadline to reply. “We do not know of any deadlines,” he told a news conference, translated by Iran’s Press TV.
A senior diplomat in Brussels said the European Union had agreed to go beyond U.N. sanctions on Iran, instructing its financial institutions to exercise “restraint” on export credits and allowing its navies to inspect all Iran-bound cargoes.
But the EU will only adopt regulations to implement the latest U.N. resolution next week, after the two-week deadline.
“Britain, France, Germany and Italy wanted to be robust and go beyond (U.N. Security Council resolution) 1803 and implement what they had to sacrifice to Russia and China to get it through the Security Council,” the diplomat said.
Russia and China, two of the sextet, have been more reluctant to impose penalties than the United States, Britain, France and Germany, the other four behind the incentives offer.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also vowed no shift in policy.
“One should not spoil negotiations by raising unreasonable conditions, since Iranians are not ready to deviate from their rights by one iota,” he said, Fars News Agency reported.
The president made his remark to South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who has joined other ministers from the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Tehran.
NAM, a group of 118 developing nations, said in a statement Iran’s choice to use peaceful nuclear energy “must be respected” and welcomed “continuing cooperation” with the
Diplomats said the text was watered down from Iran’s initial draft. A NAM diplomat said Iran wanted “clear support from NAM, unconditionally” but said there were amendments “to make it more moderate.” An Iranian official said Iran was still satisfied.
Diplomats said the statement omitted a call for sanctions to be lifted swiftly, as proposed by Iran. But it said “any attack or threat of attack against peaceful nuclear facilities” would be illegal, and would endanger people and the environment.
The United States has said Iran’s failure to respond positively to the offer would trigger steps toward more U.N. sanctions. Three sets have been imposed since 2006.
(Additional reporting by Yves Clarisse in Brussels and London bureau)
Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Philippa Fletcher