Die of anger, defiant Iran tells the West

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Iran kept up its defiant rhetoric after the head of the international nuclear agency urged Iranian leaders to co-operate in reining in sensitive activities that have raised suspicions that they are bent on building a bomb.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was circumspect after holding talks with Iranian nuclear experts aimed at heading off a growing crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But there was no apparent breakthrough.

He confirmed that he had discussed with his Iranian hosts a UN proposal for Iran to resume a freeze on uranium enrichment until questions over the full extent of its nuclear programme have been resolved.

However, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, indicated suspension was not an option during a joint news conference with Mr ElBaradei. "Such proposals are not very important ones," he said.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a typically inflammatory statement only hours before Mr ElBaradei arrived in Tehran. "Our answer to those who are angry about Iran obtaining the full nuclear cycle is one phrase, we say: Be angry and die of this anger," he said.

"We will not hold talks with anyone about the Iranian nation's right (to enrichment) and no one has the right to step back, even one iota."

Mr ElBaradei went to Tehran as he prepares to report back to the UN Security Council at the end of the month on Iranian compliance with IAEA and UN demands. If Iran continues its defiant stand, it risks increased diplomatic pressure from the UN although Russia and China - Iran's allies on the council - are adamant that sanctions should not be imposed.

Uranium enrichment is the key to developing the fuel for a reactor or for a nuclear weapon. Although Iran insists that its intentions are peaceful, the announcement on Tuesday that its scientists had enriched uranium prompted a chorus of international condemnation.

Even Russia and China, urged Iran to resume its uranium enrichment freeze.

Estimates vary as to how long it would take Iran to produce a nuclear bomb, which requires 90 per cent levels of enriched uranium but it is at least two years away. So far, Iran says it has only mastered the technology for enriching uranium to the 3 per cent needed for reactor fuel.

The timeline for building a weapon depends on Iran's ability to operate large numbers of spinning centrifuges that enrich uranium but which are unreliable. Nuclear experts say it would take 200 centrifuges at full capacity for six to nine months to make sufficient highly enriched uranium for a bomb - without the IAEA safeguards that are in place.

Iran has announced that it had enriched uranium using 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant. Mr ElBaradei said yesterday that IAEA inspectors had taken samples but was unable to confirm Iran's claim.

Iran also reaffirmed on Wednesday that it intends to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment involving 3,000 centrifuges by late 2006, and then expand the programme to 54,000 centrifuges. However, no time-frame was given.

Mr ElBaradei said yesterday that the IAEA inspectors had "not seen diversion of nuclear material for weapons purposes but the picture is still hazy and not very clear". He noted that Iran had failed to come clean on the full extent of its activities for 20 years.

Mr ElBaradei also held talks with Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation. He did not meet Mr Ahmadinejad, or Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has supreme authority over the nuclear programme, which has become a matter of national pride.