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Iran rebuffs UN nuclear chief in talks

President asserts right to continue uranium process

TEHRAN -- Iran rebuffed a request by the UN nuclear agency chief yesterday that it suspend uranium enrichment, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted his country will not retreat ''one iota."

The chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, looked much less optimistic after the four hours of talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, than he had when he arrived for the one-day visit and said the time was ''ripe" for a political solution to the standoff.

ElBaradei, who is hoping to prevent a confrontation between Tehran and the Security Council, put forward the UN request for Iran to suspend enrichment until questions over its nuclear program are resolved.

But Larijani indicated suspension was not an option. ''Such proposals are not very important ones," he told reporters matter-of-factly while standing next to ElBaradei at a joint news conference after the talks.

Hours earlier, Ahmadinejad said enrichment was a line in the sand from which the Iranians would not retreat. ''We won't hold talks with anyone about the right of the Iranian nation (to enrich uranium), and no one has the right to retreat, even one iota," the president was quoted as saying by Islamic Republic News Agency.

''Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: 'Be angry at us and die of this anger,' " Ahmadinejad said.

Iran says its nuclear work is solely for peaceful, civilian purposes, but the United States and several allies believe it seeks a nuclear arsenal.

ElBaradei said the extent of the nuclear program was uncertain: ''We have not seen diversion of nuclear material for weapons purposes, but the picture is still hazy."

During the 20 years of Iran's nuclear program, ''lots of activities went unreported," ElBaradei said.

Higher-level enrichment makes uranium suitable for a nuclear bomb, although Western experts familiar with Iran's program say the country is far from producing weapons-grade uranium.

ElBaradei said that in their talks, Larijani had renewed Iran's commitment ''to provide clarity to outstanding issues before I write my report to the (International Atomic Energy Agency) board by the end of this month."

The Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to cease enrichment of uranium. But Iran has rejected the demand. It said Tuesday that, for the first time, it had enriched uranium with 164 centrifuges -- a step toward large-scale production.

Representatives of the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- discussed the latest development yesterday morning. The United States and Europe are pressing for sanctions, a step Russia and China have so far opposed.

''We want to see what the outcome of the discussions between ElBaradei and the Iranian government is. And when we get information on that, we'll consider what to do next," US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said after the meeting.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there will ''have to be some consequence" for Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities.

''There is no doubt that Iran continues to defy the will of the international community despite the fact that the international community very clearly said stop," Rice said.

Undersecretary for Arms Control Robert Joseph rejected Iran's claims that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes.

''If it had nuclear weapons, I am sure (Iran) would be even more ambitious in its use of terror to undercut the prospects of peace in the Middle East," Joseph told reporters in Cairo.

China said yesterday it was sending its assistant foreign minister to Tehran to convey its concerns about the nuclear program.

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