Top Iranian cleric hits out at ElBaradei visit to Israel
TEHRAN (AFP) Jul 09, 2004
Iran's clerical leadership Friday denounced a visit to Israel by UN atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei, accusing him of unfairly pressuring the Islamic republic while failing to speak out against the Jewish state's alleged nuclear arsenal.

"The Zionists have so many warheads," protested Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani at the main weekly prayers in Tehran.

"And this Mr ElBaradei goes to Israel, and instead of telling them to correct their behavior they sit down and talk about Iran," he told worshippers in his sermon.

"In order to divert attention from Israel they turn to Iran, which has been merely working on its (peaceful nuclear) technology."

And in a message to the "enemies of Iran", he pledged that the "people of Iran will not give up their tiniest rights in scientific issues, nuclear or non-nuclear -- and will not allow you to attack the country or its interests".

He also stated that the "West's claims to liberalism and democracy are all lies", and that the "Zionists and the White House have disturbed all values" -- drawing the habitual chants of "Death to America, Down with Israel".

During a visit to Israel earlier this week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made little progress on his hopes for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

After the talks, Israel held fast to its longstanding "strategic ambiguity" policy of secrecy about whether it has nuclear weapons and its refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Most foreign experts believe Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal of up to 200 warheads.

Analysts saw the ElBaradei visit more as a calculated balancing act, with the IAEA trying to appear even-handed as its pressure Iran over its suspect bid to generate nuclear energy.

Israeli officials also made clear to ElBaradei their fears about the atomic program in Iran, which has been under investigation by the IAEA since February 2003 for allegedly hiding a secret weapons program, something Tehran denies.

The Israeli official said that while there had been positive signs in parts of the region, following Libya's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, the regime in Tehran "is going in the opposite direction and shaking loose" of commitments it had given to both the IAEA and the European Union.

"Israel has its own threat perception which it believes is unique," as the country believes "it is the only state (in the region) that faces an existential threat", IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told reporters Wednesday after ElBaradei met Israel Atomic Energy Commission chief Gideon Franck.

Iran's official policy is that the Jewish state should be destroyed and the land given back to the Palestinians.