Ahmadinejad speech inflames tension

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched a new attack on Israel yesterday, calling it "a rotten, dried tree" that could be knocked over by "a single storm".

The inflammatory remarks, similar to those which provoked a barrage of international condemnation in October, are likely to increase tensions after Iran's announcement on Tuesday that it had enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council demands.

"Like it or not, the Zionist regime is heading towards annihilation," Mr Ahmadinejad told a Tehran conference on the Palestinian intifada, attended by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as representatives from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah.

"The existence of the Zionist regime is tantamount to an imposition of an unending and unrestrained threat so that none of the nations and Islamic countries of the region and beyond can feel secure from its threat," he added.

Earlier in the day Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the clerical watchdog, Guardian Council, had told a Friday prayer meeting in Tehran that the US was "a decaying power" which Iran should not fear. Sermons are often used by leading regime figures as a platform for public statements, often accompanied by calls of "death to America".

Ayatollah Jannati was responding to increased pressure from Washington on the country's nuclear programme. On Thursday, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran would face "consequences" for defying a Security Council demand that it halt all enrichment activity.

"One thing the Security Council has, and the International Atomic Energy Agency does not have, is the ability to compel, through Chapter Seven resolutions, member states of the UN to obey the will of the international system," she said. Under Chapter Seven the UN can impose sanctions or even military action.

A flying visit to Tehran on Thursday by the IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei failed to secure a breakthrough in the stand-off, but the Egyptian said he was still hopeful and that both sides were committed to maintaining dialogue. Mr ElBaradei is due to report to the IAEA by the end of April.

Next week Security Council members will discuss Iran at a meeting in Moscow. Russia was aggrieved by Iran's unexpected breakthrough on uranium enrichment because it undermined its own attempts at a compromise proposal. But it is still uncertain if Moscow will support sanctions.

China, which has also been cool on the use of sanctions against Iran, yesterday said it would send a delegation to Tehran to discuss the nuclear programme and stressed the importance of dialogue in defusing the crisis.

"We hope all parties will adopt a cool-headed approach," said the Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. "Dialogue is better than confrontation."