'Death to America!' - Tehran defiant as Security Council stand-off looms

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The Independent Online

Near the University of Tehran - where the revolutionary faithful chant "Death to America" at Friday prayers - Iranians were defiant in the face of a Western threat to haul their country before the United Nations Security Council.

"Let them sanction us - Iran will not fall to its knees," declared Mohammed Baghari yesterday, a middle-aged greengrocer with the neat beard worn by many conservative Iranians. "We're not like Iraq to bow down and be beaten by America. If our government behaves as it ought to behave, we will go on as we are."

"The Americans cannot do anything to us at the moment - they're a bunch of donkeys stuck in the mud of Iraq," said Tayebeh Biniaz, a chemistry tutor, wrapping her black chador tightly against the freezing winter wind. "We faced sanctions from the whole world while we fought an eight-year war against Iraq. We coped with it then and we can cope with it now."

Yesterday's reaction on the streets of Tehran came as the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottak, threatened to halt snap inspections by UN inspectors if Iran is referred to the Security Council for its "defiance" over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

The hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said on state-run radio: "Iran is not frightened by the threat of any country and it will continue the path of the production of nuclear energy. Iranian people do not allow foreigners to block their progress."

The harsh official reaction comes after Britain, France and Germany, backed by America, warned Tehran on Thursday that they planned to report Iran to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions. An emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected in the first week of February to discuss the matter.

The Friday prayers at the university have been an institution since the fall of the Shah, when students made up the vanguard of revolutionary fervour. The student body is more liberal now, with Western clothes a more common sight on campus these days than the humble garb worn by conservatives.

But under the huge awning by the university gate, thousands of Iranians gather each week to hear a senior cleric lambast the West as they shake their fists and cry "Death to America; death to Israel!"

Worshippers are often bussed from the countryside, and sometimes include soldiers from neighbouring garrisons or schoolchildren taken for a day out. As a weekly event, it is the public face of Iranian officialdom.

Government figures often point to widespread popular backing for Iran's nuclear programme, but it is not clear how deeply that support runs. While most Iranians say they believe Iran has a right to its nuclear programme, many are unsure about the enormous cost it entails, over which there has been little public debate. And there are also strong reservations about the confrontational stance taken by the government.

A Foreign Office spokesman described Iran's reaction to the threat from the three European powers as "knee-jerk rhetoric". But the Iranian response has revived fears that talk of UN punitive sanctions risks being counter-productive, as it could prompt Iran to toughen its position and cease co-operating with the international community attempting to curb its nuclear programme.

In a serious blow to the European hopes of reaching a consensus on how to deal with Iran, China expressed doubts about referring Tehran to the Security Council. "Our concern is that to refer it to the council might complicate the issue," the ambassador Wang Guangya said at the UN headquarters in New York. "I think this might make the positions of some parties more tough on this issue," he added, referring specifically to Iran's threat to stop co-operating with the UN snap inspections.

The views of such countries as China and Russia are important as they are Security Council permanent members as well as members of the IAEA board, many of whose 35 members are sympathetic to the Iranian position.

Apparently recognising the lack of international appetite to punish Tehran, Britain, France and Germany were adamant yesterday that talk of sanctions was premature. "Our approach is firm," Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said on the Today programme on Radio 4. "But it has also got to be a sensible, patient approach which ensures that there is a continuation of the very substantial international consensus which we have built up." He stressed that he had not discussed military action with US officials, and said such an option was inconceivable and inappropriate.

The Europeans have three weeks of intensive diplomacy ahead of them to convince IAEA board members to take action after Iran broke the UN seals at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility which could be used to produce a nuclear weapon.

But a senior diplomat in London warned that there was a danger the Europeans could find themselves having issued an empty threat. "The Europeans' credibility is at stake, and so is that of the UK and France as nuclear powers and as permanent members of the Security Council," the diplomat said.

Iran insists that its nuclear intentions are peaceful, and argues that it has a right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. The government told the IAEA that it only intends to carry out small-scale enrichment at the Natanz facility.