TEHRAN // The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that his country would not yield in the crisis over its nuclear drive as world powers awaited a response from Tehran to a proposal aiming to end the standoff. "The Iranian people are steadfast and will not step back an inch against the oppressive powers," Mr Ahmadinejad told a rally in the southwestern province of Kohgelouyeh-Boyerahmad. His defiant comments come after world powers warned Iran has only two weeks to respond to their latest offer seeking to end a five-year crisis that has raised fears of regional conflict and sent oil prices spiralling.
World powers have offered to start pre-negotiations during which Tehran would add no more uranium-enriching centrifuges and in return face no further sanctions ? the so-called "freeze-for-freeze" approach. Iran is under three sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its refusal to halt sensitive uranium enrichment work, which the West fears could be aimed at making nuclear weapons. The US took the unprecedented step of sending a top diplomat to meet Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili at last week's international talks in Geneva which ended in a stalemate.
But Washington, which has led the efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear drive, has also warned Tehran of "punitive measures" if it spurns the international offer and presses on with enrichment work. Mr Ahmadinejad welcomed the US presence in talks as a "positive step" but vowed that further sanctions would not force Iran to back down in the nuclear standoff. "The Iranian nation does not value your threats. You are mistaken if you think you can force this nation to back down with sanctions, threats and pressure," Mr Ahmadinejad warned.
The hardline president advised US officials "not to ruin your positive step with irrelevant comments and a colonialist language" in the speech broadcast on state television. Iran denies allegations of seeking nuclear weapons, insisting that its programme is designed to provide energy for its growing population when the Opec member's reserves of fossil fuels run out. Permanent Security Council members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany have made Iran an offer, which includes trade incentives and help with a civilian nuclear programme in return for suspending enrichment.