TEHRAN - Tehran Tuesday told Washington to stay out of its internal affairs as U.S. policymakers prepared to discuss whether to take a tougher stance on Iran aimed at destabilizing its clerical establishment.
Washington has stepped up its criticism of Iran in recent days, accusing the Islamic Republic of harboring senior al Qaeda members and developing a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran denies the charges.
"We hope that wisdom and logic dominates the Americans' debates and they refrain from carrying out any interference in our affairs," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.
"Iran has always defended its interests with full power and will continue to do so. It won't hesitate even for a fraction of a moment to defend itself," he told Reuters without elaborating.
Washington's increasingly-hostile rhetoric has alarmed Iran's clerical leaders, already unnerved by the presence of U.S. troops across its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq.
Washington broke ties with Tehran shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution and President Bush last year placed Iran in an "axis of evil" alongside Iraq and North Korea.
"The message Iran is hearing from Washington is: 'We're out to get you'," said a local analyst, who declined to be named.
The Washington Post Sunday reported that the White House was due to consider Tuesday a Pentagon-backed proposal to destabilize Iran's clerical rulers through popular uprisings.
IRAN NOT A HOUSE OF CARDS
It was not known what actions the Pentagon was proposing although some U.S. official have suggested Washington could provide backing for exiled opposition groups such as the Iraq-based People's Mujahideen militia and Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of Iran's late shah.
But diplomats in Tehran caution that the exiles enjoy little support among Iranians and that while discontent with clerical rule is strong, public protests are kept firmly in check.
"The assumption that Iran is a house of cards waiting to collapse is off base," said one Asian diplomat.
The heightened pressure on Iran follows U.S. intelligence reports suggesting senior al Qaeda members in Iran may have played a role in the May 12 suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia.
Iran says it has arrested and deported around 500 al Qaeda suspects over the past year and is interrogating several others.
Diplomatic pressure on Iran is likely to intensify on June 16 if, as Washington hopes, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declares Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iran insists its network of nuclear facilities, which includes a uranium enrichment plant, are solely geared to electricity generation. But U.S. officials and independent analysts say Iran's atomic program could allow it to "break out" of the NPT when it is ready to build nuclear weapons.
"Iran is sending the signal that it is close to being able to make nuclear weapons while denying it has any such intention," David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in a recent research article.
Despite mounting concerns that Iran may be less than two years away from making weapons-grade nuclear material, Russia said Tuesday it would not give in to U.S. pressure to drop its assistance in building Iran's first nuclear reactor.
"We will continue to fulfil our duties despite the fact that our position on this question is different from Washington's official view," Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev told the Prime Tass news agency.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd