updated 8/6/2006 5:57:40 PM ET 2006-08-06T21:57:40

Iran vowed Sunday to expand its uranium enrichment, defying a U.N. Security Council deadline for it to suspend its nuclear activities by the end of the month or face the threat of political and economic sanctions.

Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani’s statement was Tehran’s first warning since the resolution passed that it could step up its atomic program. It suggested Iran is feeling emboldened in its main confrontation with the West, over its nuclear program, as Europe and the United States scramble to deal with the escalating violence between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants.

“We will expand nuclear activities where required. It includes all nuclear technology including the string of centrifuges,” Larijani said, referring to the equipment Iran uses to enrich uranium, which can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor or fissile material for an atomic warhead.

Iran also gave its Hezbollah allies a green light to keep fighting in Lebanon, saying that the United States — which put forward a cease-fire plan with France Saturday — can’t be a mediator in the crisis because of its support for Israel.

The U.S. has “no right to enter the crisis as a mediator” in the Mideast fighting, hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a telephone conversation with his top ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to a report on Ahmadinejad’s official Web site.

“They (the U.S.) think that through the U.N and the Security Council they can achieve the goals which they could not achieve militarily,” he said.

U.N. focus shifts
The outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah — triggered by a July 12 militant raid into Israel that ended with the capture of two Israeli soldiers — has moved the focus of the Security Council’s attention from its efforts to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

Many in the U.S., Europe, the Arab world and Israel accuse Iran of fueling the warfare in Lebanon through Hezbollah in a bid to show its regional strength. Iran denies that it is arming the guerrillas and says it wants a cease-fire — but on terms fair to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United States and many in Europe also accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, though Iran denies the claim, saying it aims only to generate electricity.

Larijani denounced the July 31 U.N. nuclear vote as “illegal” and said, “We reject this resolution.”

West grows impatient
Larijani said Iran intends to meet Tehran’s previously announced goal of responding by Aug. 22 to a package of incentives put forward in June by the U.S. and Western nations to entice Iran into suspending enrichment.

The United Nations said the sanctions threat in the deadline would be revoked if Iran accepts the package — but the resolution reflected Western impatience over the months Tehran has taken to respond to the offer.

Larijani said the deadline threat was “contrary” to the incentives package and blamed the West for damaging efforts for a diplomatic solution.

“We were expected to hold talks ... to remove ambiguities ... but they issued a resolution (at the U.N. Security Council) and killed it (talks). They should explain why they damaged the path of dialogue,” he said.

Tehran's will stiffens
Larijani insisted the U.N. had no right to require Iran suspend enrichment, saying his country has not violated any of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty. He said any expansion of enrichment would remain under the supervision of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran’s comments Sunday signaled that it wouldn’t back down easily on the nuclear issue. Iran’s state-run radio said in a commentary that Iran was serious in its defiance of the U.N. resolution demanding a suspension of enrichment.

“Iran stands ready to pay the necessary price in defending the rights of the Iranian nation,” it said.

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