PARIS – France's foreign minister said Thursday that Iran's nuclear program was a cover for clandestine military activity, in an unusually direct attack on Tehran for a European diplomat.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator immediately dismissed the charge, insisting that Iran doesn't "want to have the bomb."
Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's comments were likely to increase pressure on Iran amid the international dispute over its nuclear activities. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful but European and U.S. leaders fear it is aimed at building atomic weapons.
"No civilian nuclear program can explain the Iranian nuclear program. It is a clandestine military nuclear program," Douste-Blazy said on France-2 television. "The international community has sent a very firm message in telling the Iranians to return to reason and suspend all nuclear activity and the enrichment and conversion of uranium, but they aren't listening to us."
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4 over suspicions about its nuclear activities. France, Britain and Germany have led European negotiations that have failed to persuade Iran to suspend parts of its nuclear program.
Amid mounting tensions, Iran resumed small-scale uranium enrichment last week. Uranium enriched to low level is used to produce nuclear fuel for reactors and further enrichment makes it suitable for use in nuclear weapons.
"Now it's up to the Security Council to say what it will do, what means it will use to stop, to manage, to halt this terrible crisis of nuclear proliferation caused by Iran," Douste-Blazy said.
Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani rejected the French minister's comments, saying, "We want civil nuclear energy, we don't want to have the bomb."
"Concerning nuclear arms, we are a responsible country," he said on France-Inter radio from Tehran. "The propaganda suggests that we want the bomb, but this is not the truth."
"We want to be in this camp" of countries that have nuclear energy technology but no nuclear weapons, such as Brazil and Japan, he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States will "walk a fine line" in seeking international sanctions against Iran.
Rice detailed a two-track approach to Iran — concerted international pressure to deter the Iranians from building a bomb, and a newly robust attempt to sew democratic change within the country with aid for broadcasts and dissidents.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow will only host Iran's uranium enrichment program if Tehran agrees to re-impose an indefinite freeze on enrichment at home.
Lavrov's comments came just five days before talks in Moscow on moving Iran's enrichment program to Russia to allay fears that Tehran might misuse the technology to make nuclear arms. The meeting is crucial, with tensions over Iran likely to diminish if Tehran agrees to the Russian proposal — and to balloon if it does not.
Lavrov, in Vienna to meet senior European Union officials under Austria's EU presidency, suggested that any hope in Tehran for Russian backing of enrichment on Iranian soil was a long way off.
"When confidence in the Iranian nuclear program is re-established ... we could come back to the possible implementation of the right that Iran has to develop a nuclear energy sector full scale," said Lavrov.