The Associated PressWednesday, March 21, 2007; 8:22 PM
Iran's top leader warned Wednesday his country will pursue "illegal actions" if the U.N. Security Council insists it halt uranium enrichment, an apparent reference to nuclear activities outside international regulations.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also warned the United States that Iran would fight back with "all its capacities" if attacked.
"Until today, what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations," Khamenei said. "But if they take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so."
He did not elaborate on what the "illegal actions" could be, but Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the agreement under which the U.N. inspections are held.
Iran says it will never give up its right under the treaty to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel. But it has offered to provide guarantees that its nuclear program won't be diverted toward weapons _ as the U.S. and some of its allies fear.
The five permanent members of the Security Council _ the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France _ and Germany have drawn up new sanctions to punish Iran for rejecting U.N. demands to halt enrichment _ a process that can produce fuel for a reactor or fissile material for a nuclear warhead.
"If they want to treat us with threats and enforcement of coercion and violence, undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian nation and authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack," Khamenei told the nation in an address marking the first day of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year.
Ambassadors from the 15 Security Council nations held informal discussions in New York on Wednesday ahead of a meeting to discuss possible changes to the draft sanctions resolution.
The new sanctions would ban Iranian arms exports and freeze the assets of 28 additional individuals and organizations involved in the country's nuclear and missile programs _ about a third linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, an elite military corps.
The package also calls for voluntary restrictions on travel by the individuals subject to sanctions, on arms sales to Iran, and on new financial assistance or loans to the Iranian government.
In Washington, Bush administration officials urged patience with U.S. efforts to crack down on Iran as Democrats leveled fresh criticism of the government's approach.
"Iran is a country very much on the defensive right now," said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department.
"The United States is committed to pursuing a diplomatic solution to the challenges posed by Iran. This will require patience and persistence," he told the Senate Banking Committee.
The U.S. and France are hoping the new sanctions will be adopted by the end of the week, but that goal seemed complicated. South Africa, which holds the rotating Security Council presidency, has proposed extensive changes to the resolution _ including eliminating the arms embargo _ and a 90-day "time out" on all sanctions.
Although the five council powers remained united on their draft, discussion of South Africa's proposals seemed likely to delay a vote.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country "will not support excessive sanctions against Iran," and added that the draft resolution has been softened at Moscow's behest, including narrower restrictions on officials' travel.
European and U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks said Tuesday that Moscow had bluntly told Tehran it would not ship fuel for the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran until Tehran freezes its uranium enrichment program.
Lavrov denied that.
"It's not the first time that we are seeing such an unscrupulous approach aimed at driving a wedge between us and Iran," he told lawmakers in the lower house of parliament.
Russia has said plans to supply fuel for Bushehr this month were called off because of Iranian payment.
Still, Burns spoke favorably of Russia's decision, saying it was akin to telling Iran "this won't be business as usual."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he will travel to the United Nations if the Security Council decides to vote on sanctions. In his own New Year's address, he accused world's powers of waging "psychological warfare ... to block our nation's progress."
Khamenei said sanctions would backfire and only further motivate Iran to develop nuclear power without outside assistance.
"Sanctions may even, under circumstances, come to our benefit since they create more motivation for us," he said. "Western governments don't agree with Iran possessing nuclear power. Let them. Did we ask anybody permission to achieve nuclear power?"
Iran says it needs alternative energy sources for when its oil reserves run out.
"Nuclear energy is a must, a necessity in the long term," Khamenei said. "One day oil will dry up. ... The Iranian nation needs nuclear energy for life, not weapons."
Associated Press Writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Jeannine Aversa in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Associated Press