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Iran defies U.N. Security Council deadline on enrichment

Iran underlined its disregard Friday for the U.N. deadline to halt uranium enrichment — now expired — when its president vowed never to give up its nuclear program and accused the West of misrepresenting Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Iran had until midnight Thursday to halt its enrichment activities or face the possibility of economic sanctions under a United Nations Security Council resolution passed July 31.

Although the U.N. nuclear watchdog reported Thursday that Iran has not halted enrichment, thereby opening the way for punitive measures, U.S. and other officials said no action would be sought before a key European diplomat meets with Tehran’s atomic chief next week to seek a compromise.

On Friday, in the first comments by an Iranian official since the deadline passed, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told a rally, “Exploitation of peaceful nuclear energy is our obvious right. We will never give up our legal right.”

“The West’s claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is a sheer lie,” state TV quoted him as telling the gathering in Maku, northwestern Iran. “The West basically opposes progress by Iran.”

Striking a more conciliatory note, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi urged the West to desist from taking hasty action, saying that the current situation underlined the need for talks with the Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany, state TV reported Friday.

John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Security Council would wait to consider possible actions until European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, met Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, sometime in the middle of next week.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also was expected to raise the issue during a visit to Tehran this weekend.

The EU reiterated its commitment to a diplomatic resolution.

“For the EU, diplomacy remains the No. 1 way forward,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency.

He said “this is not the time or place” for the international community to hit Iran with sanctions. Tuomioja spoke at a meeting Friday of EU foreign ministers in Finland.

The European Union as a whole has been a moderate voice on the Iran issue. However, Britain and France, which are also permanent Security Council members, support tough action, while Germany, another leading EU member, is also believed to back that stance.

Russia, also a permanent council member, signaled its impatience with Iran Friday, saying it “regrets” Tehran’s decision not to halt uranium enrichment by the deadline, according to reports by Russian news agencies.

“We share the position of (the International Atomic Energy Agency) and express our regret that Iran has not fulfilled Resolution 1696 by the designated date and refused to stop work on uranium enrichment,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin was quoted as saying.

Russia and fellow veto-wielding council member China have generally taken a back seat to other council members in the push to get tough with Iran on its nuclear programs. Trade sanctions could cut off badly needed oil exports to China and Iran is building a reactor with assistance from Russia.

In the aftermath of the deadline, comments by a conservative Iranian cleric implied that Tehran may be counting on divisions within the council to avert sanctions.

“The U.S. supports sanctions, but we hope others will use their wisdom,” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said during his Friday prayer sermon. He described Russia and China as “independent” and said that “Europe should be independent and not follow the U.S.”

U.S. and European diplomats have said they are focusing on low-level punishment at first to win backing from Russia and China. Proposals include travel bans on Iranian officials or a ban on the sale of dual-use technology to Iran. Russia and China are expected to resist heavier measures, like trade sanctions.

Ahmadinejad denounced the United States Thursday, accusing it of applying a double standard to its foreign policy.

“They claim to be supporting freedom but they support the most tyrannical governments in the world to pursue their own interests,” he told a crowd of thousands in the northwestern town of Orumiyeh.

“The Iranian nation will not succumb to bullying, invasion and the violation of its rights,” Ahmadinejad said.

In a report Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Tehran had not halted uranium enrichment and said three years of IAEA probing had been unable to confirm “the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program” because of lack of cooperation from Tehran.

Iran denies it is trying to acquire atomic weapons in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, with the sole aim of producing electricity with nuclear reactors.