By Peter Griffiths
UPDATE 2: Head of UN nuclear watchdog says Iran harbours major power status.
Iran wants the ability to build nuclear weapons to gain the reputation of a major power in the Middle East, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said in a BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday.Tehran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency denied the assertion.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last week has cast doubt on Western powers' hopes of a dialogue with Iran aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment programme, which Iran says is for generating electricity only.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran sees a nuclear breakout ability as an "insurance policy" against perceived threats from neighbouring countries or the United States.
"My gut feeling is that Iran definitely would like to have the technology ... that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so," ElBaradei told the BBC.
The enrichment process can be configured to produce fuel either for nuclear power plants or weapons.
"(Iran) wants to send a message to its neighbours, it wants to send a message to the rest of the world: yes, don't mess with us, we can have nuclear weapons if we want it," he said.
"But the ultimate aim of Iran, as I understand it, is that they want to be recognised as a major power in the Middle East and they are.
"This is to them the road to get that recognition to power and prestige and ... an insurance policy against what they heard in the past about regime change, axis of evil," ElBaradei said.
"He's absolutely wrong. We don't have any intention of having nuclear weapons at all," Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters outside a meeting in Vienna of the IAEA's 35-nation governing body.
"Nuclear weapons are not in our defence doctrine. We do not consider nuclear weapons any advantage ... we will never have (them). But we are going to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes ... We will continue fuel cycle activities without any interruption because Iran has a legitimate need."
Soltanieh said Iran had mastered enrichment technology and Western powers "should cope with this reality. They are unhappy about these facts? It is their problem, it is a reality."
The United States told the agency's governing board Iran now appeared to be in the position to "weaponise" enrichment.
"Iran is now either very near or in possession of sufficient low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon, if the decision were made to (further) enrich it to weapons-grade," U.S. envoy Geoffrey Pyatt said.
To do that, Iran would have to adjust its enrichment plant to yield bomb-ready nuclear fuel and miniaturise the material to fit into a warhead - technical steps that could take from six months to a year or more, nuclear analysts say.
Ahmadinejad indicated on Sunday nuclear policy would not change in his second term since the issue "belongs in the past".
Pyatt said Iran's stonewalling since mid-2008 of an IAEA investigation into US intelligence allegations that it researched atomic bomb design, and its curbs on UN inspections, "deeply undermines Iran's assertion that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful in nature".
Six countries, including European Union members Britain, France and Germany, have offered Iran economic and other incentives if it stops enriching uranium, a process that can make fuel for power plants or weapons.
Iran has not engaged the six-power offer and says its enrichment programme is non-negotiable. (Reuters)