By By ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's Supreme Leader said Saturday that his country is not seeking nuclear weapons, but that no world power could stop Tehran's access to an atomic bomb if it intended to build one.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, told a group of Iranians at his home in the Iranian capital, Tehran, that his country backs the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"We believe that nuclear weapons must be eliminated. We don't want to build atomic weapons. But if we didn't believe so and intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us," Khamenei said in comments posted on his website, khamenei.ir.
Iran recently has highlighted a religious decree Khamenei issued more than seven years ago that bans nuclear weapons in an effort to back up its claim that Tehran's nuclear program is being used for peaceful purposes and medical research. Iran authorities often cite the decree to counter Western suspicions that Iran could ultimately move toward an atomic bomb.
Although Iran views Khamenei's 2005 fatwa as a binding declaration, the West and its allies have repeatedly accused Iran of using any tactic to prolong the standoff over its nuclear program, and possibly advance its nuclear capabilities.
They want Iran to stop enriching uranium to a level that could be turned relatively quickly into a fissile core of nuclear arms. Iran denies such aspirations, insisting it is enriching only to make reactor fuel and to make isotopes for medical purposes.
Iran recently said it had begun installing a new generation of centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a move that will allow it to vastly increase its pace of uranium enrichment in defiance of U.N. calls to halt such activities.
Iran is living under stepped-up Western sanctions that include a total oil embargo and banking restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Iran's Asian customers to pay for oil deliveries. Still, Tehran insists the sanctions won't force it to give up its nuclear program.