TEHRAN - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday challenged President Bush to a televised debate and voiced defiance as a deadline neared for Iran to halt work the West fears is a step toward building nuclear bombs.
"Peaceful nuclear energy is the right of the Iranian nation ... it wants to use it and no one can stop it," he told a news conference.
The White House said Ahmadinejad's call for a presidential debate on global concerns was a "diversion".
The U.N. Security Council has given Iran until Thursday to suspend uranium enrichment -- a process which can produce fuel for civilian reactors or explosive material for warheads -- and has threatened to consider sanctions if it does so.
Iran has shown no sign it will halt uranium enrichment. The world's fourth largest oil exporter has shrugged off the threat of sanctions and said such a move would simply push oil prices up to intolerable levels for industrialized economies.
Oil dipped below $70 a barrel on Tuesday, but worries about the nuclear standoff have curbed selling.
Britain's Ambassador to the U.N., Emyr Jones Parry, said the 15 council member states would first need to assess a report to be delivered on Thursday on Iranian compliance from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
"I would expect activities here to resume toward the middle of September," when governments would have "a clearer view of exactly how this should be carried forward," he told reporters.
Ahmadinejad said Iran had laid out a framework for talks in its reply to an offer by six world powers of incentives in exchange for a suspension of enrichment. That framework provided an "exceptional opportunity" to solve the nuclear dispute.
Asked specifically if Iran would halt enrichment, even for a short period, he replied: "In that (Iran's response to the six-nation offer) we announced that any kind of dialogue should be based upon the certain rights of the Iranian nation."
TIME FOR A DEBATE
Ahmadinejad condemned the U.S. and British roles in the world since World War Two.
"Isn't it time that international relations are founded on democracy and equal rights of the nations?" he asked. "I suggest holding a live TV debate with Mr George W. Bush to talk about world affairs and the ways to solve those issues.
"The debate should be go uncensored in order for the American people to be able to listen to what we say and they should not restrict the American people from hearing the truth."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "Talk of a debate is just a diversion from the legitimate concerns that the international community, not just the U.S., has about Iran's behavior -- from support for terrorism to pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,"
Ahmadinejad brushed off calls by John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., for sanctions if Iran ignores the U.N. deadline.
"Bolton is free to say whatever he wants ... our nation is a strong nation. A nation that has been able to attain the nuclear fuel cycle with its bare hands can solve any other problems."
He also said Iran would consider renewing ties with the United States but that it was up to Washington to act after cutting relations shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Washington has called for a swift response if Iran does not meet the deadline. But analysts say divisions at the United Nations about how to handle Iran's file could delay such a move.
Russia and China, big trading partners of Iran who have veto powers in the U.N. Security Council, may oppose sanctions moves.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said talks with Iran were important, but only after it halted enrichment.
"The international community must not be divided. If it is cut in two, that would be a victory for the Iranians," he told EuroNews in an interview to be broadcast on Wednesday.
© Reuters 2006