Iran's nuclear chief said Tehran has the right to bar some U.N. inspectors from monitoring its disputed nuclear program, the semiofficial Isna news agency reported.
Ali Akbar Salehi's late Monday comments were apparently in response to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, expressing alarm about Iran's decision to bar some of its inspectors.
The report, obtained by reporters on Monday, said the Islamic republic was hampering its work in the country by barring some of its inspectors with Iran-specific experience.
It follows Iran's recent decision to strip two inspectors of the right to monitor its nuclear activities, after they reported what they said were undeclared nuclear experiments.
Isna also quoted Salehi as saying Iran had asked the agency to replace the two and that it had accepted the replacements.
"This is our right as well as the right of other members of the agency to choose the inspectors," Salehi said. "Basically, all member nations select from a list provided by the agency."
"Those inspectors who were rejected by Iran had reported false information. The agency reached this conclusion but it does not want to admit it," he said.
In its latest report, the IAEA said it has "full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the inspectors concerned."
The watchdog also voiced continued concern about possible activities in Iran to develop a nuclear-armed missile and urged Tehran to step up cooperation with the IAEA and grant access to relevant sites, equipment and personnel "without further delay."
Washington, which accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and spearheaded the adoption of tougher sanctions on Tehran in June, called the latest IAEA report "troubling."
Iranian officials dismissed the criticism, saying Iran was cooperating fully with the U.N. agency and suggesting that new IAEA chief Yukiya Amano was biased against it and and producing misleading reports. Iran says its work is for peaceful purposes.
The Japanese diplomat has taken a tougher approach than his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei. The IAEA said in a February report that Iran could be trying to develop a nuclear-armed missile now, and not just in the past.
"We believe that because of political pressures, marginal and secondary matters are being exaggerated," Isna quoted Salehi as saying.
Salehi, also the Islamic Republic's vice president, urged the Vienna-based atomic agency to steer a fair and neutral course, arguing that the IAEA's credibility depended on that.
Salehi said the IAEA's "writing style" had changed in the past year, implicitly criticizing Amano who took office in December.
"Is it not true that Iran's cooperation with the agency has increased? ... Even in some periods and in order to build trust, we have had further cooperation with the agency which were beyond our commitments," Salehi added.
The IAEA report voiced concern about what it called Iran's "repeated" objections to its choice of some inspectors, saying this "hampers the inspection process."
Iran barred two inspectors from entering in June, accusing them of wrongly reporting that some nuclear equipment was missing. It also denied access to a senior inspector in 2006 and has objected to other appointments in the past.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast echoed Salehi's comments on Tuesday.
"We have the right to replace inspectors regarding their background and activities," he said.
China, which has strong economic ties to Iran, joined the push to bring the country into line.
"We hope that Iran and the agency can fully cooperate, and establish the trust of the international community in the peaceful nature of their nuclear plants," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a briefing in Beijing.
China has also backed U.N. Security Council resolutions pressing Iran to abandon disputed nuclear activities.
But Iran is a major supplier of crude oil to China, the world's second-biggest consumer of oil after the United States.