TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's supreme leader on Sunday denied his country had any plans to build atomic weapons, but the president insisted the nuclear program itself was not negotiable.
Speaking to an audience of Revolutionary Guards, the elite military unit that answers directly to him, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a rare direct statement that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons.
"While the Iranian nation has no atomic bomb and has no plans to create this deadly weapon, it is still a respected nation" for its spiritual and revolutionary values, he told the Guards whose leader he had just replaced.
Iran which has always vigorously defended its right to develop its nuclear program also denies allegations by the United States and other countries that it is looking to develop weapons as well.
Earlier in the day, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made it clear that Iran had no intention of slowing or stopping its nuclear energy program despite two rounds of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council and increasing pressure from the United States.
"Iranians are a nation of logic and dialogue but it will not negotiate about its rights with anybody," the official news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "Enemies of this nation should known that Iran is not about to retreat."
He noted that the recent report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog which applauded Iran for its increased cooperation showed that European nations have a more positive approach to the situation than certain other countries.
"There are only one or two countries that do not understand reality and they think that they can force Iranian nation to back down," Ahmadinejad said, in an apparent reference to the U.S. and Britain.
The International Atomic Energy Agency report in August noted an increased willingness by the Iranians to answer questions after years of stonewalling and was seen as putting the brakes on the push for new sanctions.
According to diplomats, however, that report has displeased the U.S., who are putting pressure on IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei and accuse him of overstepping his authority in dealing with Iran. They spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential matters with The Associated Press.
The U.S. continues to suspect that Iran is exploiting the agreement with the IAEA as a smoke screen to deflect attention away from its continued defiance of a Security Council ban on uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear arms.
Iran insists it wants to master the technology only to meet future power needs and argues it is entitled to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty provision giving all pact members the right to develop peaceful programs.