TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Iran's president defiantly refused to compromise as a U.N. deadline for his country to stop enriching uranium arrived Thursday, saying Tehran would not be bullied into giving up its right to nuclear technology.
President Bush said ``there must be consequences'' for Tehran, adding that the war between Tehran-backed Hezbollah militants and Israel demonstrated that ``the world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran.''
A senior U.N. diplomat, however, said key European nations will meet with Iran in September in a last-ditch effort to seek a negotiated solution to the standoff. The U.N. Security Council will await the results of that meeting before acting on sanctions, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his information was confidential.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report obtained by The Associated Press that Iran shows no signs of freezing enrichment, adding that Tehran started work on a new batch Aug. 24.
The confidential IAEA report will be given to its 35-nation board. That is expected to trigger U.N. Security Council members _ by mid-September _ to begin considering economic or political sanctions.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was defiant, telling a crowd of thousands in the northwestern city of Orumiyeh ``the Iranian nation will not accept for one moment any bullying, invasion and violation of its rights.''
He also said enemies of the country were trying to stir up differences among the Iranian people, but ``I tell them: you are wrong. The Iranian nation is united.''
``They claim to be supporting freedom but they support the most tyrannical governments in the world to pursue their own interests,'' he said, referring to the United States. ``They talk about human rights while maintaining the most notorious prisons. Those powers that do not abide by God and follow evil are the main source of all the current problems of mankind.''
In a speech at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, Bush blamed Iran for supporting the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, for helping to destabilize Iraq by sponsoring insurgents and supplying components for improvised explosive devices, and for denying basic human rights to millions of its own people.
``The world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran,'' he said. ``We know the depth of suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought. And we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
``There must be consequences for Iran's defiance,'' he said, ``and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons.''
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an Iranian refusal to freeze enrichment by the deadline would be ``very regrettable,'' and the international community would be unable to ignore it.
``We have made Iran a very, very good offer,'' she in the Baltic port of Warnemuende, alluding to a package of incentives aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear activities.
If Iran does not accept, ``we will not slam the door shut, but we cannot act as if nothing had happened,'' Merkel said, adding that the next step would have to be discussed, but gave no details.
The State Department has not said publicly what type of punishment it might seek. But U.S. and European officials have indicated they might push for travel restrictions on Iranian officials or a ban on sale of dual-use technology to Iran. The hope is to start with relatively low-level punishments in a bid to attract Russian and Chinese support, the officials have said.
More extreme sanctions could include a freeze on Iranian assets or a broader trade ban _ although opposition to that by Russia, China and perhaps others would be strong, particularly since it could cut off badly needed oil exports from Iran.
Russia and China, which have traditional economic and strategic ties with Tehran, seem likely to resist U.S.-led efforts for a quick response, which means sanctions do not loom immediately. That has prompted the Bush administration to consider rallying its allies to impose sanctions or financial restrictions of their own, independent of the Security Council.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi shrugged off the possibility of sanctions, telling state-run television that Iran ``will find a way to avoid pressure eventually.''
The deadline was widely reported on the front pages of major Iranian newspapers. The daily Aftab said the showdown offers ``the enemies'' a chance to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Another newspaper, Kargozaran, expressed doubt that the U.S. would muster enough support within the Security Council for punitive sanctions.
It's not clear when exactly Thursday's deadline will run out. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said he believed it would end at 12:01 a.m. Friday in Tehran _ or 3:31 p.m. EDT Thursday at the Security Council in New York.
But diplomats said the exact timing was not particularly relevant for two reasons: They believe Iran already has given its answer; and they would almost certainly abandon their sanctions threat if Iran decides to suspend enrichment after the deadline.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad urged European members of the council against resorting to sanctions, saying punishment would not dissuade his country. Another top Iranian official urged Japan to help peacefully resolve the standoff without sanctions.
Abbas Araghchi, deputy minister for legal and international affairs of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, met with Japan's foreign minister in a clear sign of Iran's continued efforts to lobby against support for sanctions.
``We are confident of the peaceful nature of our program. So if there is also goodwill and sincerity in the other side, we are sure that we can reach a good solution, a good conclusion through negotiations,'' Araghchi said.
Tehran insists it wants to enrich uranium as fuel solely for civilian nuclear power stations. However, the U.S. and other Western countries suspect it wants to use it in nuclear weapons.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed fresh suspicion that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and said in remarks published Thursday that Arab governments are equally worried about Tehran's ambitions.
``At the moment, Iran has no use whatsoever for enriched uranium _ unless it is planning to build the bomb,'' Steinmeier was quoted as saying in the newspaper Bild.
He also criticized the Iranian president for ``trying to play the role of the leader of the Islamic world. ... Yet his Arab _ also Islamic _ neighbors share our concern about and rejection of a nuclear-armed Iran.''
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany offered Iran the incentive package in exchange for a commitment from Tehran to freeze enrichment.
But Tehran's response earlier this month suggested it was not willing to suspend enrichment before talks, let alone consider a long-term moratorium on such activity.
The West has struggled for years over carrots and sticks to persuade Iran to roll back its nuclear program. But Tehran has time after time played the game by its rules and kept its eyes constantly on a long-term prize: forcing the world to accept its nuclear ambitions.
Iranian leaders have indicated they are willing to bear the economic blow of whatever sanctions are passed rather than give up enrichment.
That means Thursday is hardly a climactic milestone in the long-standing tussle between Iran and the West. Iran can go on putting forward diplomatic initiatives to try to divide the big powers and keep room for maneuver, said one analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
``This deadline will invariably be followed by another deadline and another,'' he said. ``This is a game that will play out over five years, not a game that will play out tomorrow.''