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Tue 17 Jun 2008 12:59 PM

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Iran pledges to continue nuclear drive

Islamic republic says it will not stop enriching uranium, defying major powers.

Iran said on Tuesday uranium enrichment was its "red line" and would continue, despite an enhanced offer of incentives from big powers to stop activity the West fears could yield nuclear bombs.

The EU's top diplomat, Javier Solana, presented Tehran on Saturday with an adjusted package of economic benefits designed to persuade it to curb its nuclear work, and said Iran should stop enrichment during negotiations to implement the offer.

"We have repeatedly said that enrichment is our red line and we should enjoy this technology. The work will be continued," Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikhattar told reporters, according to the state news agency IRNA.

The incentive package agreed by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany last month and delivered by Solana is a revised version of one rejected by Iran in 2006.

Western powers have warned Iran it will face more sanctions if it spurns the offer. Iran has shown no sign it will change its position, and suggested it was in no hurry to respond to the incentives proposal, saying it is being reviewed.

"We will give our answer as soon as possible. But we do not know exactly when it will be," the Iranian official said.

The incentives package offers Iran the chance to develop a civilian nuclear programme with light water reactors - seen as harder to divert into bomb-making than the technology Tehran is now developing - and legally binding fuel supply guarantees.

It also offers trade and other benefits, including the possibility of Iran buying civil aircraft from the West.

A prominent Washington think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said the package contained two important new additions.

ISIS noted a passage saying the powers would "support" continued research and development (R&D) in nuclear energy "as confidence is gradually restored" in Iran's intentions. This suggested R&D could go on even during an enrichment halt and set a longer-term timetable for resolving core issues, it said.

ISIS said the offer also alluded to possible security guarantees, a prime Iranian concern, by citing readiness to "reaffirm obligations under the U.N. Charter to refrain... from the use of force against [Iran's] territorial integrity".

A senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named, told newswire Reuters Iran's response would not be a straight yes-or-no answer. "It will be a discussable response. We might accept some elements of the proposal and reject some others," he said.

"But suspension of enrichment is not on the agenda."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday Europe would take further sanctions against Iran, speaking of immediate action to freeze the overseas assets of Iran's biggest bank, the Bank Melli.

But after a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, Solana said the EU had yet to decide on a new round of sanctions. The UN Security Council has imposed three rounds of limited sanctions on Iran since 2006.

Iran insists, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that it has the right to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enriching uranium, for peaceful purposes. It says it wants nuclear power only for electricity generation.

The process provides fuel for power plants or, if concentrated to heighten the enrichment level, atomic bombs.

Washington says it wants a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear row with the West that has helped push oil prices to record highs, but has not ruled out military action as a last option. Tehran says its response to attack would be "painful". (Reuters)

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