Iran Seeks Rollback on Eve of Meeting

VIENNA -- Iran sought on Wednesday to roll back its commitment to fully freezing uranium enrichment programs, demanding the right to run some equipment that can be used to produce nuclear arms.

Iran's push to run 24 centrifuges for research purposes did not seem to represent a major move to enrich because thousands of centrifuges must operate for months for enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

Still, the demand on the eve of a key meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog agency was likely to strengthen perceptions that Tehran was not interested in easing fears about its nuclear aims.

Britain, which helped negotiate the enrichment suspension in Paris weeks ago on behalf of the European Union, rejected the demand.

A British government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the Nov. 7 agreement stands.

Citing the official EU stance, an EU diplomat accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency -- the UN nuclear watchdog -- said all centrifuge activity is suspended under the Paris agreement.

The deal commits Tehran to full suspension of enrichment and all related activities while the two sides discuss a pact meant to provide Iran with EU technical and economic aid and other concessions.

While insisting it only wants to produce nuclear fuel through enrichment, Iran said Monday it froze all uranium enrichment programs.

The suspension was clearly timed to coincide with the Thursday start of the 35-nation IAEA board meeting, and met a key demand of the last board meeting in September. It thus deprived the United States of arguing that Tehran was defying the agency and weakened its attempt to refer it to the UN Security Council.

Even before Wednesday's revelation, Iran had cast doubt about its interest in reducing international distrust by continuing conversion until shortly before Monday's freeze deadline. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said he believed the Iranians processed about 2 tons of raw uranium into the gas by Monday.

Experts estimate Iran is not far away from being able to run the 1,500 centrifuges needed to process enough enriched uranium for one weapon a year.

To shouts of "No compromise," tens of thousands of Iran's Basij militia staged a show of strength on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

The voluntary organization, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently dubbed as "Iran's atomic bomb," staged a military parade south of the capital and vowed to defend its country against any foreign threat.

Wearing military fatigues and some armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the basijis hailed their commander with the customary shouts of "Death to America, death to Israel."

"The Basij force, as the backbone of Iran's national authority ... will never give in to the bullying of imperialism led by the United States," Revolutionary Guards Commander Yahya Rahim Safavi told reporters after the parade.

"The ship of [U.S. President George W.] Bush's Middle East policy has run aground in Iraq. I don't feel any danger from them," he said in answer to a question about the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran.