Iran vows to push on with nuclear fuel programme

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Buoyed by the success of its proxy militia in Lebanon, Iran has rejected a demand from the West, aimed at curbing Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons programme, setting itself on a new course of confrontation.

On the eve of a self-imposed deadline for responding to a Western offer of economic and technology incentives in return for a suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday: "We won't suspend."

"Everything should come out of negotiations but suspension of uranium enrichment is not on our agenda," Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Tehran.

He said that Iran would offer a "multi-faceted response" to the proposed package tomorrow.

Anything short of the suspension of the uranium enrichment that many fear would eventually lead to production of a nuclear weapon, will force the United Nations Security Council to consider its threat of sanctions against Iran. In a resolution adopted at the end of last month, the council ordered Iran to suspend uranium enrichment by 31 August or face the possibility of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Nicholas Burns, the United States Under-secretary of State for political affairs, warned last week that he expected the Security Council to move rapidly in September to impose sanctions against Iran because of the country's intransigence.

Iran underlined its determined stand by holding war games over the weekend, which included the televised launch of Saegheh ("lightning" in Farsi) short-range missiles. The television commentator said the ground-to-ground missiles had a range of between 50 and 150 miles.

Iran has said the military exercises - called The Blow of Zolfaghar in reference to a sword that belonged to Imam Ali, one of the holiest figures of Islam for Shia Muslims - were aimed at "introducing Iran's new defensive doctrine".

Iran clearly feels it has a strong position in the light of Israel's failure to disarm the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia in southern Lebanon, despite a 34-day war launched after the Shia guerrillas in Lebanon captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, has warned that Iran would be prepared to use oil as a weapon if sanctions are considered, prompting market analysts to predict a further surge in the oil price as tomorrow's deadline looms.

The proposed package from the West provides for direct talks between Washington and Tehran, as well as an offer of nuclear technology and the easing of some trade restrictions.

However Iran has consistently refused to suspend uranium enrichment, saying that its nuclear programme is purely peaceful, and is permitted under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Western concerns about the prospects of a nuclear Iran have deepened since the beginning of the Lebanon war, which has been described as a proxy war between the US and Iran.

The Iranians may feel that they can play for time because the UN decided that any "further decisions" would have to be discussed by the 15-member Security Council, where veto-holding powers Russia and China have been supporters of Iran.