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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Iran brandishes oil weapon in nuclear row

TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran has again brandished oil as a weapon in a dispute over its nuclear programme, with the Islamic republic continuing to resist international demands to freeze sensitive uranium enrichment work.

The threat came amid mounting pressure on Tehran to accept a proposal that it halt enrichment, at the centre of fears it could acquire nuclear weapons, in exchange for multilateral talks and a package of incentives.

"If the country's interests are attacked, we will use all our capabilities, and oil is one of them," Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh was quoted as saying by state television.

"The world needs energy and understands the effect on the market of oil sanctions against Iran, and no-one will make such an unreasonable decision," the minister said, predicting sanctions against Iran could push crude up to 100 dollars a barrel.

The West suspects Iran, which is
OPEC's number two oil exporter, is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons, a charge denied by Tehran which insists its atomic programme is purely for electricity-generation.

Tehran has been asked to reply to the proposal -- drawn up by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- by the end of the month, although President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it would take until August 22 to give a formal answer.

But Iran appears to still reject the key condition in the package -- a full and verified suspension of uranium enrichment -- and continues to call for negotiations devoid of any "preconditions".

"The suspension of enrichment is one step backward. We think Europe should negotiate without preconditions... which only cloud the negotiating atmosphere," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters.

"Instead of setting preconditions that are both unreasonable and baseless, we should negotiate," he added.

Javad Vaidi, deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said on Friday that suspending uranium enrichment would be neither a precondition for talks with the world powers on its nuclear activities nor an outcome of those discussions.

"Iran considers that suspension is neither a precondition to nor the result of negotiations," Vaidi told AFP.

Last week, US
President George W. Bush warned Iran faced "progressively stronger political and economic sanctions" if it refused the offer.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul also arrived in Tehran on Saturday evening, carrying "a message from the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Iranian President" -- clearly an appeal for Iran to compromise.

"As a neighboring country (to Iran) we are trying to find a peaceful solution, since it is in the interest of the two countries, the region and the world," Gul told reporters.

"We believe that with composure we can get results, and we know that Iran is studying the proposal with composure," he added. "We hope that this issue will be solved diplomatically and peacefully, since it is in the interest of all parties."

On Saturday Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in Berlin that Tehran was "very seriously studying" the package offered by the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

Speaking after meeting his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mottaki said he saw "very positive points" in the proposal but also "ambiguities".
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