Ayatollah enters Iran nuclear row

IRAN'S supreme leader yesterday publicly backed the defiant stand of country's hardline president on Tehran's nuclear programme as the Islamic Republic again insisted the West would come off worst in any confrontation.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran's ultimate arbiter of power, told Iranian officials not to yield to Western pressure as he prepared Iranians for a possibly "painful" showdown with the United States. If Iran gave ground on the nuclear issue the US would find another excuse to advance its real aim of regime change in Tehran, he said on national television.

"If the Iranian nation and government step back on nuclear energy today, the story will not end there and the Americans will make another pretext," he said. "The Iranian people and the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, more powerful than before and like steel, will stand against any pressure or conspiracy."

Increasing the pressure on Tehran, Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said Iran was her country's greatest challenge. She told a Congressional hearing that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons, was the "central banker for terrorism" in the Middle East and was holding up democracy in the region.

"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East that we would like to see develop," Ms Rice said.

Ayatollah Khamenei said Wednesday's decision by the UN's nuclear watchdog to send Iran's case to the Security Council was part of a psychological war orchestrated by Washington, but he also warned Iranians that they could face more than sabre-rattling. "We should stand firm on the matter and by enduring possible pain and trouble will be victorious," he said.

Earlier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's firebrand president, was more cavalier. Scoffing at Washington's tough talk, he insisted the Islamic Republic would not be bullied or humiliated.

He said the West "cannot do a damn thing" against Iran."

All the Iranian nation, young or old, urban dweller or villager and farmer or factory worker, are saying one thing: nuclear energy is our inalienable right."

Iran's defiant posture as the UN Security Council prepares to take up the dispute next week underscores Tehran's apparent belief that it commands a strong position as the crisis deepens. The regime feels bolstered by popular domestic support for mastering nuclear technology and a sense that the US is less of a potent threat because it has become bogged down in neighbouring Iraq.

Tehran has hinted it could use its position as a major oil supplier to push up prices. Some Iranian officials have also issued thinly veiled threats that Tehran could use its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestinian territories to cause trouble for the US and Israel.

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