- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TEHRAN — Iran’s president on Tuesday dismissed a year-end deadline set by the Obama administration and the West for Tehran to accept a U.N.-drafted deal to swap enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. The United States warned Iran to take the deadline seriously.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also accused the United States of fabricating a purported Iranian secret document that appears to lay out a plan for developing a critical component of an atomic bomb.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks underscored Tehran’s defiance in the nuclear standoff and also sought to send a message that his government has not been weakened by the protest movement sparked by June’s disputed presidential election. He spoke a day after the latest opposition protest by tens of thousands mourning a dissident cleric who died over the weekend.

Late Tuesday, the Web site of state-run television said Mr. Ahmadinejad had appointed a new chief of Iran’s prestigious Art Academy, removing opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi from the post.

Mr. Mousavi, a presidential challenger who alleged voting fraud, attended Monday’s funeral procession. There was no immediate comment from Mr. Mousavi.

President Obama has set a rough deadline of the end of this year for Iran to respond to an offer of dialogue on the nuclear issue. Washington and its allies are warning of new, tougher sanctions on Iran if it doesn’t respond.

The U.N.-proposed deal is the centerpiece of the West’s diplomatic effort. Under the deal, Tehran would ship most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad to be processed into fuel rods, which would ease the West’s fears that the material could be used to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran, which denies it seeks to build a bomb, has balked at the deal’s terms.

The international community can give Iran “as many deadlines as they want — we don’t care,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech to thousands of supporters in the southern city of Shiraz.

He dismissed the threat of sanctions, saying Iran wants talks “under just conditions where there is mutual respect.”

“We told you that we are not afraid of sanctions against us, and we are not intimidated,” he said, addressing the West. “If Iran wanted to make a bomb, we would be brave enough to tell you.”

As the crowd cheered: “We love you, Ahmadinejad,” the Iranian leader lashed out at Washington, vowing Iran will stand up against U.S. attempts to “dominate the Middle East.”

The U.S. responded sternly. “It is a very real deadline for the international community,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the international community was “united in its resolve that Iran must either answer the questions that we have about its nuclear aspirations or face additional pressure.”

In Paris, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the chances of finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran were “never very significant” and that in the “worst case,” France will bring up the issue of new sanctions on Tehran.

In a separate interview with ABC News, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the United States of forging the document that appears to describe an Iranian work plan for developing a neutron initiator, a key component in detonating a nuclear bomb.

“They are all a fabricated bunch of papers continuously being forged and disseminated by the American government.” He said the accusations that Iran seeks a weapon has “turned into a repetitive and tasteless joke.” The comments were aired Monday night.

The memo first was reported in the British newspaper Times of London. U.S. officials have said it’s unclear whether the document is real.

In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Ahmadinejad also shrugged off Iran’s continued political turmoil since the disputed June election. Large street protests have continued despite a fierce government crackdown. In the latest, tens of thousands turned out for the funeral of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday, and chanted slogans against the country’s rulers.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said the West mistakenly believed that Iran “has been weakened.”

“The people of Iran and the government of Iran are 10 times stronger than last year,” he said. “I want the whole world to know it’s impossible for Iran to allow the United States to dominate the Middle East.”

Mr. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said there was a fissure in Iranian society and the U.S. is concerned about a crackdown on the opposition.

“The government is pushing by the various means that are available to it, including the use of various security forces, to kind of put this genie back in the bottle. And it is increasingly difficult for them to do that,” he said.

Iran says its nuclear program is intended only to generate electricity and that it has a right to proceed with uranium enrichment, which the United Nations has demanded it suspend. The process can produce low-enriched uranium used to fuel a nuclear reactor — or higher enriched uranium, which is the basis for building a nuclear warhead.

Under the deal brokered by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency last month, most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium would be shipped abroad, where it would be enriched further to produce fuel rods. The rods then would be returned to Iran for use in a research reactor in Tehran, but it would not be possible to enrich them further to a high enough level to build a bomb.

Iran’s response has been unclear, with officials floating a number of alternative ideas for a swap, including carrying out the exchange simultaneously or in stages. At times, Tehran has threatened to reject it outright and enrich its own fuel rods, though last week Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tehran was still open to the idea of an exchange.

Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.

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