TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s president declared victory over the United States on Wednesday and the head of a U.N. watchdog said Iran had been “somewhat vindicated” by a U.S. report that it halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
President George W. Bush called for Tehran to “come clean” on its nuclear activities and stop its enrichment of uranium which can potentially be used to make atomic bombs.
But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would press ahead with its nuclear program which the Islamic Republic says has only peaceful civilian aims.
“Today, the Iranian nation is victorious but you (the United States) are empty-handed,” Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech to a rally in the western Iranian city of Ilam.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report published on Monday said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago. It said Iran was continuing to develop the technical means that could be applied to producing weapons.
The report appeared likely to increase resistance from Russia and China to U.S. demands, backed by France and Britain, for a third round of United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
“We of course will be actively pushing for a third U.N. Security Council resolution,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters. “Anyone who thinks the threat from Iran has receded or diminished, I think is just naive and is not paying attention to the facts.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the report gave Iran a chance to resolve the crisis and former chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix said it meant there would be no military action against Iran “in the intermediate future”.
“It opens a window of opportunity for Iran now because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying they have not been working on a weapons program at least for the last few years,” ElBaradei told a news conference in Brazil’s capital.
“The report gives me a sigh of relief because it is consistent with our assessment ... We have not seen a smoking gun in the last few years but we still have work that needs to be performed.”
Bush said Britain, France, Germany and Russia continue to regard the nuclear issue as a problem and he called on Iran to explain its nuclear activities.
“The Iranians have a strategic choice to make — they can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities and fully accept the longstanding offer to suspend their enrichment program and come to the table and negotiate, or they can continue on a path of isolation that is not in the best interest of the Iranian people,” Bush said.
France said there was “growing consensus” among world powers including China and Russia on moving talks on Iran’s nuclear program to New York next week to prepare a sanctions resolution.
French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said the intelligence report would not stop plans for such a resolution because Iran was still in defiance of two Security Council resolutions demanding it halt uranium enrichment.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband backed the French stance. “That defiance remains the case today,” he told a joint news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
China reacted to the NIE report by saying “things have changed” and Yang said Beijing wanted the dispute resolved through negotiation.
“We hope that all the parties will work together to seek and realize an eventual peaceful resolution of this issue through negotiations,” Yang told a meeting organized by the Chatham House international affairs think-tank in London.
China only reluctantly backed two previous sets of U.N. sanctions aimed at making Iran stop uranium enrichment.
However, an unnamed French diplomat said after talks between world powers in Paris on Saturday that China appeared to be looking for an agreement on new U.N. sanctions.
“The Chinese have not indicated to us that their views on the next resolution have changed between the meeting on Saturday and now,” U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
Russia, also part of the Security Council, said the report should be taken into account when considering fresh sanctions, adding that Russian intelligence also had no evidence that Iran had an atomic arms program before 2003.
During a visit to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “The Iranian regime remains problematic, a dangerous regime”.
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Sue Pleming in Addis Ababa, Christian Lowe in Moscow and Isabel Versiani in Brasilia; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Philippa Fletcher