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Iran stands firm against double pressure

Tehran, June 16 (Reuters): Iran stood firm today against two-pronged outside pressure, branding US support for student rebels as interference and saying any stricter UN checks on its atomic programme must be rewarded with aid.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog and several European Union foreign ministers urged Tehran to accept the tougher controls that are designed to make sure its nuclear power programme is not a cover for making bombs as the US alleges.

Iran, currently also facing some of the most outspoken domestic protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution, said it would consider the inspections “with a positive view” but stuck by a demand it should get Western technology in return.

A diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran’s statement offered “nothing new”, but one European diplomat said Tehran’s position may be softening.

IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei appealed for Iran’s compliance after presenting a harsh report saying Tehran was in breach of its current obligations, although it was now making amends.

“The report points out that Iran has failed to report certain nuclear material and activities, and that corrective actions are being taken in co-operation with the Iranian authorities,” he told a meeting of the IAEA board in Vienna.

The criticism should please Washington, which has piled pressure on Iran since ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

President George Bush has said both countries, along with North Korea, form an “axis of evil” aiming to spread weapons of mass destruction and acting in league with terrorists.

Yesterday, Bush openly cheered the Tehran students who have protested for six nights against Islamic clerical rule, the only government most of them have known.

“This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran which I think is positive,” Bush said.

Iran’s foreign ministry officially protested and called the comments “a blatant interference in Iran’s internal affairs”.

“America is waging a psychological war,” newspapers also quoted intelligence minister Ali Yunesi as saying.

Gunshots rang out overnight near Tehran University but witnesses said the atmosphere was calmer than previous nights when hardline vigilantes attacked demonstrators who had hurled unprecedented insults at conservative and reformist leaders.

While the protests in Tehran appeared to be fizzling out or entering a lull, state media reported smaller demonstrations in three other cities in which one person was killed.

In Vienna, IAEA board members received copies of the report by ElBaradei, who said Iran should sign an additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The protocol, which Tehran has so far resisted, grants inspectors wider access and more intrusive, short-notice inspections to verify assurances about Iran’s atomic plans.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said Tehran might be willing to sign the protocol, but reiterated a demand for access to western nuclear technology in exchange.

“We have not yet decided about signing the additional protocol, but we are studying it with a positive view,” spokesperson Khalil Mousavi said.

IAEA officials say privately it would be unprecendented to bargain over the protocol, which is supposed to show a country’s transparency and which 78 states have so far signed.

In Tehran, though, the European diplomat said Iran’s remarks could show signs of a shift to a more conciliatory attitude.

“I get the sense that they are yielding ever so slightly to the pressure. But I don’t see any sign of them dropping any surprises and signing the protocol just yet,” he said.

The European Union was due to demand Iran accept “urgently and unconditionally” tougher nuclear inspections and to link compliance with a pending trade deal.

“We want firm assurances that there is no nuclear weapons programme,” said Finland’s Erkki Tuomioja, one of several EU foreign ministers who called on Iran to act as they arrived for an EU meeting to assess the trade pact.

“The onus is on them to come clean.”

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