TEHRAN - Iran is at a "crucial point" in its stand-off with the UN's atomic watchdog, one of the country's most senior figures was quoted Wednesday as saying, as another official warned too much pressure could push nuclear activities "underground".
"We should have patience and fortitude to pass through these tough times," former president and top regime cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
On Sunday, Iran and the European Union's "big three" -- Britain, France and Germany -- managed to strike a tentative agreement to avert a major confrontation after two days of tough talks in Paris.
The accord is centered on demands that Iran maintain and widen a suspension of its sensitive uranium enrichment activities, but subject to approval at the very top of the Iranian regime.
Another Iranian official, negotiator Sirous Nasseri, also issued a warning that the Islamic republic could continue pursuing its nuclear drive "underground" and quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if it came under too much pressure.
"If the West chooses to use the language of threats and force, we will leave the NPT and pursue our nuclear programme underground," the official, who was involved in the Paris talks, told Iranian newspapers.
"We will see in one or two years where we are," he added. "We will continue the negotiations for as long as the Westerners do not move towards making serious threats."
According to European diplomats, the tentative deal still contains several sticking points, including the length and extent of any halt on fuel cycle work. Both the United States on one side and Iranian hardliners on the other have been critical of the diplomacy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is apparently holding up publication of its latest report on Iran until next week in order to have an eventual EU-Iranian agreement included in the text, a key document for the November 25 meeting, diplomats said.
The United States accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and wants the IAEA's board, which meets in Vienna on November 25, to refer the matter to New York. Iran says it only wants to generate electricity.
But Rafsanjani said "those who are spreading false rumors are wrong, and hopefully Americans and Europeans will wise up."
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the news weekly Stern in an issue to be published Thursday that he had "great concern" about Iran's nuclear programme but said he did not expect Western allies to go to war with Tehran over the issue.
"I do not think that we are heading anytime soon into a confrontation similar to the one in Iraq," Fischer said.
"I think it is clear to all those involved that war is not an option," he said, adding that he believed this was also the view held by the United States and Israel.
Fischer said he was nevertheless worried by Iran's atomic ambitions, noting that Tehran acquiring a nuclear bomb "would have unforeseeable consequences in one of the most dangerous regions in the world".
"That would not only threaten Israel but Europe as well."
Fischer said Germany would continue to pursue talks with Iran along with its partners in Britain and France.
"The negotiations are difficult. The mistrust of Iran is justifiably large but a positive outcome is possible," he said, adding that it was "too early" to discuss economic sanctions to put pressure on Tehran.