Iran defiantly rejected pressure to compromise over its nuclear program as a UN deadline arrived Thursday, opening the way to the threat of sanctions against Tehran.
In a rousing speech, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran would not be bullied into giving up its right to nuclear technology, defying a late Thursday deadline set by the UN Security Council to suspend uranium enrichment.
Senior Israeli officials responded by saying that the onus of responsibility now rested with the international community.
"Iran has thrown down the gauntlet, and it's now time for the international community pick it up, implement the UN Security Council resolution, and expedite the process of sanctions," one senior official said.
Israeli officials have said recently that Israel was carefully watching to see how the world would react to Iran's continued disregard of the world's call to suspend its nuclear development, with some high-level officials arguing that it is becoming clear that in the face of the world's tentative response, Israel may eventually have to "go it alone" to stop Iran.
Nevertheless, Israel continued to press the argument that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran was a global problem, not only an Israeli one.
"A nuclear Iran under the current extreme regime constitutes a threat to the Middle East and the world," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a statement following security consultation held Thursday at the Defense Ministry.
Peretz said that Iran is a country that "publicly calls for the destruction of Israel and supports terrorism throughout the Middle East. Iran stood behind Hizbullah's control of south Lebanon and its transformation into a base for terrorism. It also supports Palestinian terrorist organizations with the aim of preventing any chance for a peace agreement."
Ahmadinejad, in his speech, told a cheering crowd of thousands in Orumiyeh in northwestern Iran that, "The Iranian nation will not succumb to bullying, invasion and the violation of its rights."
He also said enemies of the country were trying to stir up differences among the Iranian people, but "I tell them: you are wrong. The Iranian nation is united."
The International Atomic Energy Agency in a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday said that Iran had showed no signs of freezing its uranium enrichment.
The report said it had started work on a new batch on Aug. 24 and a senior official close to the agency said centrifuges were processing uranium gas for enrichment as late as Tuesday.
One Israeli official said that the IAEA report, coupled with Ahmadinejad's statement, left "little wiggle room" for those who think it is still possible to reach an accommodation with Teheran. Nevertheless, the official said that there continued to be a desire on the part of some among the permanent members of the Security Council to engage with Iran and avoid sanctions. This was a reference to Russia and China.
Hopefully, the official said, those who want to continue to have a dialogue with Iran "will realize they are being spat upon."
US President George Bush, meanwhile, said there must be
consequences to Iran's refusal to accept the international community's demand to stop its nuclear activity.
In a speech in Salt Lake City, a short time after the IAEA submitted its report, Bush said that it was now time for Iran to make a choice.
"We've made our choice," Bush said, "We will continue to work closely with our allies to find a diplomatic solution but there must be consequences for Iran's defiance and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon."
The US president added that the regime in Iran is responsible also for assisting terror groups and abusing human rights of its own citizens.
"This summer's crisis in Lebanon made it clearer than ever that the world now faces a threat from the radical regime in Iran," Bush said, pointing at Iran's active assistance to the Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The US President said also that Iran could still choose to comply with the international community and stop its nuclear enrichment activity. "If Iran's leaders accept this offer and abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions they can set their country on a better course," Bush said.
The IAEA report is likely to trigger a move by council members to begin considering economic or political sanctions, although Russia and China are seen as reluctant to back punitive measures.
The US State Department has not said publicly what type of punishment it might seek. But US and European officials have indicated they might push for travel restrictions on Iranian officials or a ban on sale of dual-use technology to Iran. The hope is to start with relatively low-level punishments in a bid to attract Russian and Chinese support, the officials have said.
More extreme sanctions could include a freeze on Iranian assets or a broader trade ban - although opposition to that by Russia, China and perhaps others would be strong, particularly since it could cut off badly needed oil exports from Iran.
Russia and China, which have traditional economic and strategic ties with Tehran, seem likely to resist US-led efforts for a quick response, which means sanctions do not loom immediately. That has prompted the Bush administration to consider rallying its allies to impose sanctions or financial restrictions of their own, independent of the Security Council.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi shrugged off the possibility of sanctions, telling state-run television that Iran "will find a way to avoid pressure eventually,"
The deadline was widely reported on the front pages of major Iranian newspapers. The daily Aftab said the showdown offers "the enemies" a chance to ratchet up pressure on Iran.
Another newspaper, Kargozaran, expressed doubt that the U.S. would muster enough support within the Security Council for punitive sanctions.
Washington also continues to hold open the possibility that it and allies - as the next step - might pursue a course outside the Security Council and impose penalties of their own against Iran.
It's not clear when exactly the deadline will run out. The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said Wednesday that he believed it would end at 12:01 a.m. Friday in Tehran - or 3:31 p.m. Thursday at the Security Council in New York.
But diplomats said the exact timing was not particularly relevant for two reasons: They believe Iran already has given its answer; and they would almost certainly abandon their sanctions threat if Iran decides to suspend enrichment after the deadline.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad urged European members of the council against resorting to sanctions, saying punishment would not dissuade his country. Another top Iranian official was in Japan on Thursday urging it, as an influential nation in Asia, to help peacefully resolve the standoff without sanctions.
Abbas Araghchi, deputy minister for legal and international affairs of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, met with Japan's foreign minister in a clear sign of Iran's continued efforts to lobby countries worldwide against support for sanctions.
Iran pursued a clandestine nuclear program for 18 years until it was uncovered by the UN nuclear watchdog agency in 2003.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed fresh suspicion that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and said in remarks published Thursday that Arab governments are equally worried about Tehran's ambitions.
"At the moment, Iran has no use whatsoever for enriched uranium - unless it is planning to build the bomb," Steinmeier was quoted as saying in the newspaper Bild.
He also criticized the Iranian president for "trying to play the role of the leader of the Islamic world. .... Yet his Arab - also Islamic - neighbors share our concern about and rejection of a nuclear-armed Iran."
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany offered Iran earlier this summer a package of incentives in exchange for a commitment from Tehran to freeze enrichment so talks could begin.
But Tehran's response earlier this month made clear the country was not willing to suspend enrichment before talks, let alone consider a long-term moratorium on such activity.
The West has struggled for years over carrots and sticks to persuade Iran to roll back its nuclear program. But Tehran has time after time played the game by its rules and kept its eyes constantly on a long-term prize: forcing the world to accept its nuclear ambitions.
Iranian leaders have made clear they're willing to bear the economic blow of whatever sanctions are passed rather than give up enrichment.
That means Thursday will hardly be a climactic milestone in the long-standing tussle between Iran and the West. Iran can go on putting forward diplomatic initiatives to try to divide the big powers and keep room for maneuver, said one analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"This deadline will invariably be followed by another deadline and another," he said. "This is a game that will play out over five years, not a game that will play out tomorrow."