TEHRAN, Iran – A month after President Bush warned that the United States hasn't ruled out military action against Iran, President Mohammed Khatami (search) responded Thursday that his country would turn into a "scorching hell" for any possible attackers.
Khatami's comments, before a crowd of tens of thousands gathered on a snowy square in Tehran to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution (search), came amid an escalating exchange of rhetoric between the United States and Iran. Washington accuses Tehran of maintaining a nuclear weapons program, which Iran says is for peaceful energy purposes.
"Will this nation allow the feet of an aggressor to touch this land?" Khatami asked at the crowd. "If, God forbid, it happens, Iran will turn into a scorching hell for the aggressors."
His statements drew chants of "Death to America!" from the crowd.
Khatami is widely recognized as a leader of a moderate faction in Iran. Indeed, Khatami himself indicated in his speech that the talk of a possible U.S. invasion was pushing him into a united camp with Tehran's hard-liners against foreign meddling.
"The Iranian nation is not looking for war, violence and confrontation," Khatami said.
"But the world should know that the Iranian nation won't tolerate any aggression and will stand united against aggression despite differences," he said, referring to the internal divide in Iranian politics between reformers and the more conservative clerics.
Last week, Bush accused Iran of being "the world's primary state sponsor of terror," and last month he said his administration won't rule out using military force against Iran over its nuclear program.
Until Khatami's statements, some had pointed to a possible softening in Iran's position in recent comments made by Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, who said that his country wants to resolve its differences with the United States.
But in his speech Thursday, Khatami was adamant that Iran won't scrap its nuclear program. Iranian scientists worked hard to develop nuclear technology on their own and will not stop due to "the illegitimate demands of others," he said.
"We have decided to move toward scientific progress, including peaceful nuclear technology and we will continue this path," Khatami said.
Thousands of Iranians traveled through heavy snow to listen to Khatami's speech on Azadi, or Freedom, Square on the anniversary of the revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (search) and brought the hard-line clerics to power.
The speech is the most recent volley in a war of words between U.S. and Iranian officials that did not seem to ease even after comments made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) last week that a military strike against Iran is "simply not on the agenda at this point."
Rice, in Luxembourg for talks with European Union diplomats, again assured the Europeans that the United States has no plans to attack Iran, but warned that Washington will accept no foot-dragging in Tehran during nuclear talks.
Khatami said Iran's decision to suspend uranium enrichment in November was a voluntary sign of good will that should be reciprocated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) and European negotiators pressing Iran for concessions on its nuclear program.
The suspension, policed by the IAEA, is aimed at building trust and avoiding U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Under an agreement reached with Britain, France and Germany, who negotiated on behalf of the European Union, Iran will continue suspension of its enrichment activities during negotiations with the Europeans about economic, political and technological aid. Iran has said it will decide in three months whether to continue its suspension.