Iran on Thursday insisted that it was not seeking a nuclear weapon, rejecting unprecedented accusations by France that its atomic drive was "clandestine" and "military" in nature.
The comments from France's foreign minister has enraged Iranians
The allegations from French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy were the first time a top European official has made such explicit claims against Tehran and highlighted increasing EU exasperation over Tehran's nuclear program.
"Contrary to all the propaganda against us, we are not seeking a nuclear bomb, since we are a signatory to (the nuclear) Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," said chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.
"It is Western propaganda that keeps on saying that Iran is seeking a bomb, but it is not true," Larijani, also the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told France Inter radio.
Douste-Blazy's comments came two days after Iran confirmed it had resumed sensitive uranium enrichment work, a process that can be used both to make fuel for a power station or the explosive core of a nuclear bomb.
France goes public with concrete weapons claim
"It's very simple: no civilian nuclear program can explain Iran's nuclear program," the minister told France 2 television. "Therefore it's a clandestine military nuclear program."
Larijani retorted: "I am very sorry to hear such comments from him; France possesses a high position among the Iranians."
"It is better for France to use its position to solve the issue, complicating the situation is easy, but diplomats should refrain from harsh comments," he said, adding: "We should not hear the same comments from the EU countries as we are used to hear from the Americans."
"I really and definitely think that France has the capability to come forward. The EU should maintain their own position, without influence," Larijani said.
He reaffirmed Iran's position that it was ready to continue negotiations with the Europeans.
The foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the EU face a tough task
Negotiations between Iran and Europe, supposed to have taken place in mid-January, never materialized owing to Iran's resumption of enrichment related activities. The United States, for their part, has regularly accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons.
The row over Iran's nuclear ambitions -- which Tehran insists is for civilian nuclear energy only -- has sparked an international standoff which has led to the brink of UN Security Council intervention.
Journey to UN action progressing at ominous pace
Earlier this month the United States and a European Union troika made up of Britain, France and Germany persuaded the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report Iran to the Security Council for action.
IAEA's Director General Mohamed ElBaradei will present a report in March
The world body is awaiting a March 6 report by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei before deciding how to proceed.
Asked about whether Iran would halt oil sales to the West, Larijani issued a veiled warning but also insisted Iran would never act irresponsibly. "We will not take the first step. But if they take on a behavior that changes the region's conditions, it may have an effect."
"We would not resort to any means for any end, we are a responsible nation," he added.
"We principally do not believe in such methods, the methods which will disturb the international norms," Larijani said.
No ransom over oil, insists minister
Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh also offered reassuring words about oil production from OPEC's second largest producer. "There is no link between the oil and the nuclear issue," he told reporters. "We have no reason to stop our exports."
Iran has said that the uranium enrichment resumed at the Natanz plant is small scale in nature, for research purposes only, and not on an industrial scale.
"The international community has sent a very strong message to the Iranians: show reason, suspend all nuclear activities and uranium enrichment," Douste-Blazy said. "And they're not listening to us.”
"That is the reason why, for the first time for days, the international community is united. It's not just the Europeans -- France, Germany and the British -- it's also Russia and China."
Merkel moves to calm fears of fresh Middle East conflict
Germans should not fear a new war, said Merkel
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview Thursday that Germany need not fear a new war in the Middle East, as she was determined to resolve differences with Iran and other nations peacefully.
"Germans should not have any fear. We are without doubt living in a time of fresh conflicts but we are behaving in a firm and responsible manner," Merkel told Stern news magazine.
Merkel said she believed there was "a real chance for a negotiated solution" in the West's standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.
"We are engaged in many efforts to try and achieve something here, among them the talks about uranium enrichment for Iran in Russia," Merkel said.