TEHRAN, Iran - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ruled out even a brief halt in Iran's nuclear program, saying Thursday it would hand a victory to the country's enemies and undercut the Islamic state's goal of becoming a world power.
Ahmadinejad's latest salvo - apparently aimed at Washington and Western allies - followed Wednesday's report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that said Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment program in defiance of U.N. demands for a suspension. The finding could set the stage for a third round of Security Council sanctions.
"The enemy wants Iran to surrender so it won't have any say in the world," Ahmadinejad told a gathering of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. "If we stop for a while, they (Iran's enemies) will achieve their goals."
Iran insists its nuclear program seeks only to develop energy, and has touted it as a sign of technological prowess. The United States and allies contend Iran is secretly aiming to develop nuclear arms.
But there are international divisions on how to handle the standoff.
The current rumblings have reached Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency, after he suggested that Iran be allowed to keep some elements of its uranium enrichment program.
The United States has lodged a complaint against ElBaradei, and Britain and France are expected to follow suit, said diplomats familiar with proceedings at the Vienna-based agency. The diplomats demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.
The United States and others worry that ElBaradei's comments could undermine efforts to pressure Iran into scrapping the program.
In Washington, President Bush said Thursday he would work with allies to beef up sanctions on Iran. He told a Rose Garden news conference that Iran's leaders "continue to be defiant as to the demands of the free world."
Bush's remarks came against a mixed backdrop: new tensions but also groundbreaking diplomatic overtures.
The Pentagon has moved two aircraft carriers and seven other ships into the Persian Gulf in a show of force. Iran, meanwhile, has detained at least two prominent American-Iranian citizens.
On Monday, however, U.S. and Iranian diplomats are scheduled to hold direct talks in Baghdad on efforts to stabilize Iraq. The meeting offers a very rare one-on-one diplomatic forum between the nations, which broke off formal relations after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The agenda of the talks is limited to Iraqi affairs and should not spill over into the nuclear impasse. But it hangs over any interplay between Iran and the United States.
Ahmadinejad again drove home Iran's message. He said opponents of Iran's nuclear program want to "hit at the source of the (Iranian) regime's progress" in attempting to thwart "Iran's exploitation of peaceful nuclear technology."
The Security Council has demanded Iran suspend enrichment because it can produce both reactor fuel and - at higher levels - weapons-grade material. The council first imposed sanctions on Iran on Dec. 23 for rejecting its demands, then modestly increased them in March.
Experts from the United States and five other powers plan to meet within the week to consider the next steps after ElBaradei's report Wednesday. The talks will focus on how to bring Iran back to negotiations and what the Security Council could do if Tehran doesn't budge, said China's deputy U.N. ambassador, Liu Zhenmin.
ElBaradei said Thursday that Iran can only be kept away from nuclear arms "through a comprehensive dialogue."
"One way to do that, rather than to continue the rhetoric, is to ... sit down together," he said in Luxembourg, while also agreeing with U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran is three to eight years from being able to make nuclear arms.
ElBaradei's report detailed the expansion of Iran's enrichment program and for the first time noted that the agency's knowledge of Iran's nuclear activities is shrinking. Tehran's has blocked inspections of a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak and facilities linked to it.
Once completed, the Arak complex will produce plutonium, which, like enriched uranium, can be used to make nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei has said he feels it is too late to force Iran to abandon enrichment and has argued instead for implementing inspection safeguards to prevent an expansion of the program.
But U.S. , French and British diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency are apparently concerned ElBaradei's statements could exacerbate their divisions with the other two permanent Security Council members, Russia and China. Both nations have watered down previous measures against Tehran over its nuclear defiance.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin urged Iran to take "a constructive approach" to the nuclear dispute and called on other nations to "step up diplomatic efforts with the aim of producing a balanced approach."
Russia has close economic and political ties with Tehran and, over objections from the United States and others, is helping to build the country's first nuclear power plant.
Iran's top nuclear inspector, Ali Larijani, defended Iran's imposing limits on IAEA inspections. He said Iran had entered "voluntarily" into the agreement allowing the inspections at Arak, and so "it has right to revise that decision" to bar the inspections.
Larijani and Javier Solana, the EU's top foreign policy official, are to meet May 31 to explore whether there's room to resume negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Also Thursday, Ahmadinejad - known for his 2005 comment that the Jewish state should be wiped off the map - criticized Israel for its attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
"If you think that by bombing and assassinating Palestinian leaders you are preparing ground for new attacks on Lebanon in the summer, I am telling you that you are seriously wrong," Ahmadinejad said. "Ocean of nations of the region will get angry and will cut the root of the Zionist regime from its stem."
Israeli experts have been talking for months about the possibility of another war with Lebanon in the summer; officials have denied planning such a conflict.
After the inconclusive outcome of last summer's war, when Hezbollah guerrillas fired almost 4,000 rockets at Israel, the Israelis are seen as unlikely to launch another one unless they felt they could emerge clearly victorious.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that "Ahmadinejad funds, trains and arms the most extreme anti-peace elements in the region if there is any real threat to regional security it comes from an expansionist fundamentalist Iran."