Iran said yesterday it would not allow UN inspectors to take samples at an alleged nuclear plant, as Washington warned it reserved the right to use military action to stop Tehran making atomic weapons.
The Islamic republic, sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan where US forces now have a strong foothold, accused Washington of waging a baseless propaganda campaign that Tehran had a secret program to develop nuclear arms.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy organization, said allowing inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog to take samples at the Kelaye Electric Company in Tehran would expose Iran to a rash of similar requests.
"We've had no problem concerning environmental samples, but we've been telling the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] that this location is a non-nuclear location," Aghazadeh told state television.
The IAEA on Thursday urged Iran to remain "transparent" and accept without delay or conditions more intrusive, short-notice inspections. The Kelaye facility was cited by the IAEA.
US President George W. Bush has stepped up a campaign to force Iran to come clean over its nuclear ambitions, and a top US official said on Friday military action remained an option but was relatively low down the agenda.
John Bolton, a leading member of Bush's administration, told BBC radio: "The president has repeatedly said that all options are on the table, but [military action] is not only not our preference, it is far, far from our minds."
But when pressed on the issue, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said: "It has to be an option."
In Amman, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar said: "My own viewpoint is that our president ... [has] emphasized the diplomatic route."
Washington seized on a statement by the IAEA on Thursday criticizing what it said was Iran's failure to comply with agreements designed to prevent the use of its civilian nuclear resources to make atomic weapons.
The US has demanded that Iran must abide by a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and sign a new protocol that would allow snap inspections.
Bush branded Iran part of an "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq over suspected weapons of mass destruction and alleged support for terrorism. Tehran says its nuclear program is designed for electricity and denies the terrorism charge.
Iran on Friday welcomed the IAEA's statement on its nuclear activities and said the US had failed in its efforts to secure a tough resolution against the Islamic republic.
"America has carried out extensive propaganda ... and [Iran's] presentation of enough proofs and documents caused their failure," said Aghazadeh, adding that Iran was cooperating with UN inspectors.
The IAEA statement fell short of the damning resolution the US had originally sought.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is helping Iran with its nuclear program, said he had been personally assured by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami this week that Tehran had no plans to develop nuclear weapons.
In a further sign of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, a senior Iranian cleric warned Washington not to treat Iran like Afghanistan or Iraq and urged courts to impose death sentences on "hooligans" who have staged days of protests against Islamic clerical rule.