By Christian Oliver
TEHRAN - The EU cannot force Iran to give up its right to enrich uranium, Iran's foreign minister says, apparently slamming the door on European Union efforts to halt the process and ease fears Tehran is seeking a nuclear bomb.
"It is wrong for them (the EU) to think they can, through negotiations, force Iran to stop enrichment," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told a conference in Tehran on Tuesday. "Iran will never give up its right to enrichment."
Diplomats said the EU had agreed on Monday to prepare a package of "carrots and sticks" to get Iran to comply with demands by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to suspend enrichment activities -- a process which can be used to make material for atomic bombs.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that U.S. officials were also working on the package of incentives with the EU.
Washington believes Iran is secretly developing nuclear arms and wants it referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
Iran says it wants to master the full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment, so it does not have to rely on imported fuel for an ambitious atomic energy programme.
EU ministers had urged Russia, which is building an atomic plant in Iran despite strong U.S. criticism, to join the initiative. But a foreign ministry official in Moscow said on Tuesday Russia thought the EU proposals would be ineffective.
Russia has long maintained that Iran has an entirely peaceful nuclear programme and cannot use Moscow's atomic know- how to make weapons.
Although Iran is not enriching uranium at present, it is preparing a large batch of raw uranium ready for the process and has resumed building enrichment centrifuges in defiance of a previous agreement with Britain, Germany and France.
The IAEA called on Iran last month to halt such activities and said it may be sent to the Security Council if it failed to do so by the next IAEA board meeting on November 25.
Kharrazi said it was up to the EU to make proposals "that safeguard our right to nuclear technology for peaceful ends" while he provided assurances to the world that Tehran is not building atomic weapons.
The IAEA said on Monday that equipment and material that could be used to make atomic weapons had been disappearing from Iran's western neighbour, Iraq. Western diplomats said the agency feared the U.S.-led war aimed at disarming Iraq may have unleashed a proliferation crisis, if looters had sold nuclear equipment.
"If some of this stuff were to end up in Iran, some people would be very concerned," a diplomat close to the IAEA told Reuters. "The IAEA's big concern would be profiteering, people who would sell this stuff with no regard for who is buying it."
As a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to enrich uranium under IAEA supervision. A senior IAEA team arrived in Iran on Monday, state television reported.
It said the IAEA team hoped to clarify outstanding questions about Iran's nuclear programme and to visit several facilities including the Parchin military base near Tehran which some diplomats have cited as a possible covert atomic arms site.
The IAEA has so far said it has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iran but that some outstanding issues need to be clarified.