TEHRAN, Iran – A leading hardline Iranian cleric contradicted government policy on atomic weapons Friday, saying Tehran should withdraw from an international nuclear arms control treaty and restrict access to its nuclear facilities.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (search) also said the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency's demands for unfettered access to Iran's atomic facilities are an "extra humiliation" and a ruse to gather information about Tehran's government.
Jannati's statements conflict with those by President Mohammad Khatami's government, which said earlier this week that Iran would cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) and start negotiating an additional protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search) providing for unrestricted inspections.
"What's the problem about withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?" Jannati asked rhetorically in the national broadcast of his Friday prayers sermon.
"North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Many countries have not even signed it. It would have been better if Iran had not signed it."
The IAEA has been pressuring Iran to grant inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities. After extensive lobbying by the United States, which suspects Iran is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons, the IAEA gave Iran until Oct. 31 to allow unfettered inspections.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for generating electricity, but the discovery of weapons-grade enriched uranium and other evidence suggests the program could be intended for weapons.
"The additional protocol is imposing an extra humiliation and we should not accept it under any circumstances," Jannati said.
"The additional protocol means these gentlemen (IAEA inspectors) can visit any place without any restrictions — one day the parliament building, the next day the supreme leader's office — under the false suspicion of nuclear weapons."
Jannati heads the Guardian Council (search) that vets all parliamentary legislation. He is known to be close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters.
Conservatives, supported by Khamenei, have been engaged in a power struggle with reformists led by Khatami.
Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh told an IAEA meeting in Vienna, Austria, this week his country would continue working with the U.N. agency and was "fully committed" to preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms.
On Wednesday, a U.S. State Department official told U.S. and Israeli lawmakers that Iran's nuclear program is a threat to the Middle East as well as the United States.
Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, told the U.S.-Israel Joint Parliamentary Committee that Iran likely will develop missiles capable of reaching the United States or Western Europe.
However, U.S. analysts believe Iran is years away from a nuclear weapon, even with significant foreign assistance.