Iran: Nuke Program Will Continue

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Iran scoffed at U.S. incentives aimed at coaxing the Islamic republic to drop its nuclear ambitions and declared Saturday that Washington's overtures did nothing to change Tehran's (search) plans to push ahead with its nuclear program.

An Iranian envoy in Europe, however, acknowledged in guardedly positive terms that there appeared to be a "new awakening" in Washington (search).

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi (search) said neither threats nor incentives would alter Iran's determination to develop peaceful nuclear technology. Washington insists Tehran's uranium enrichment program is designed to build a nuclear weapon, not merely to provide an alternative energy source.

Tehran issued its defiant response a day after the Bush administration softened its stance on how to thwart Iran's nuclear development and agreed to support a European plan that offers economic incentives for Iran to give up any weapons ambitions.

The U.S. concessions, announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, include an end to American opposition to Iran's application for membership in the World Trade Organization and a partial lifting of the ban on sales of some spare parts for Iran's civilian aircraft. Rice signaled that Iran should quickly accept — or face the threat of harsh U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Asefi said Rice's offer was no offer at all.

"The restrictions on spare parts that have no military purpose should have not been imposed from the beginning, and lifting them is not an incentive," state-run radio quoted Asefi as saying.

And, he said, "joining the WTO is an obvious right of any country in the world."

Washington previously had insisted Iran deserved no reward for simply abiding by an international arms compact that forbids nuclear weapons development.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was in Caracas, Venezuela, on a three-day visit, said his country is ready "to cooperate with the world to give more certainty that Iran is not moving toward the creation of nuclear arms" but insisted it has a right to nuclear technology.

"Now it is different than in the last century, when the great powers could have all (technology) exclusively," said Khatami, who held talks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and signed a series of commercial accords.

"We have to be strong to strike (back) ... to defend ourselves from the dangers of those who want to invade us," Khatami said, without elaborating.

State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said Saturday the United States concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"The burden is on Iran to demonstrate to the entire international community, by eliminating all enrichment activity and other steps, that Iran's nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful," he said in Washington.

Asefi accused the United States of issuing false and "hypocritical" claims about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and of pushing European Union negotiators closer toward Washington's tougher stance. The Europeans have agreed to support the threat of U.N. sanctions if Iran fails to fulfill its obligations.

But Sirous Nasseri, an Iranian envoy in Geneva, who spoke by telephone with The Associated Press in Vienna, described Rice's announcement Friday as a "new awakening ... (that) I believe would stand to benefit the United States more than anybody else."

He warned, however, against what he suggested were unrealistic expectations, saying nothing would result in Iran giving up its right to uranium enrichment.

Iran suspended its enrichment activities last year to build confidence for its negotiations with the Europeans and to avoid being referred to the Security Council for the possible imposition of sanctions. But Tehran says the voluntary freeze depends on progress in ongoing talks with Britain, Germany and France, who are negotiating on behalf of the European Union.

The Europeans want an Iranian commitment to scrap uranium enrichment in exchange for economic aid, technical support and backing for Tehran's efforts to join mainstream international organizations.

Nasseri, a participant in the Geneva negotiations, also suggested the Europeans were leaning toward a compromise that could include monitored guarantees that the uranium being processed did not go beyond low grades — adequate for fuel purposes — without reaching higher levels that would make usable for making weapons.

But European diplomats, who demanded anonymity, told the AP in Vienna on Saturday that France, Germany and Britain continued to demand a dismantling or indefinite freeze.

Russia, meanwhile, welcomed the softening of the U.S. stance.

Russia hopes U.S. actions will conform with "the line that both Russia and Western European countries are pursuing in efforts to remove all questions relating to the character of Iran's nuclear program on the basis of cooperation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said.

Russia, which is building a nuclear reactor in Iran under a contract that has caused U.S. concern for years, has expressed support for the EU's diplomatic efforts.