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Iran to continue enriching uranium - Rafsanjani

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KUWAIT, Apr 17 (Reuters) Iran will continue to enrich uranium, influential former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said today, as concerns grow over possible US military action against Tehran's nuclear programme.

Iran announced last week it had enriched uranium for use in its power stations, stoking a diplomatic row with the West which suspects Tehran is trying to build an atomic bomb. Iran says it is seeking nuclear power to generate electricity.

''The Islamic Republic of Iran does not intend to stop,'' Rafsanjani told reporters in Kuwait in answer to a question about uranium production.

''The Islamic Republic wants to continue along its path,'' he said during a visit to the Gulf state.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says it cannot verify Iran's nuclear programme is entirely peaceful despite three years of probing but it has found no hard proof of efforts to build atomic weapons.

A team of IAEA inspectors would travel to Iran ''within two days to try to remove ambiguities on Iran's nuclear issue'' as agreed with IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, said Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency, quoting an Iranian diplomat.

IAEA officials said after ElBaradei's talks in Tehran last week that senior inspectors including Olli Heinonen, ElBaradei's deputy for safeguards issues, would visit Iran this week.

A diplomat said Heinonen's presence suggested Iran was ready to provide some missing information.

HARM Rafsanjani, speaking through an interpreter, said he did not believe the United States would attack Iran.

''We are sure that America will not enter into such a predicament,'' he said. ''But if (Iran) is subjected to aggression ... then the war will have its consequences.'' ''Harm would not only engulf the Islamic Republic of Iran but the region and everybody.'' Iran's Gulf neighbours have repeatedly expressed concern at its nuclear programme, saying they would be the first affected if anything goes wrong -- whether a leak in a reactor or a military strike on nuclear facilities.

''We in the Gulf are worried by Iran's nuclear programme,'' Abdul Rahman al-Attiya, secretary-general of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, told reporters in Yemen.

Iran's nuclear ambitions have added to tension in the Gulf region, which is already worried about instability in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

In Kuwait, Rafsanjani, who heads a council that arbitrates Iranian legislative disputes, sought to ally Gulf fears, saying the atomic programme was bound by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.

But Kuwaiti politicians and newspapers said verbal assurances alone were not enough to allay fears over a meltdown or a confrontation with the West.

''The Chernobyl accident is still on our minds,'' member of parliament Mohammad al-Saqer said, referring to the Soviet reactor disaster.

''Iran is a neighbourly and friendly state but these verbal Iranian assurances don't mean a thing,'' Saqer told reporters.

''The assurances should be tangible. The Iranians are escalating the situation daily ... This is a scary thing, not only for the international community but for the region also.'' Parliament Speaker Jassem al-Kharafi said he hoped Tehran would work to ease the fears of its neighbours over its intentions regarding its nuclear programme by being transparent.

''If there is no transparency ... fears will intensify,'' he said after meeting Rafsanjani, who also visited Syria on Sunday.

''I'm sure their intentions will be truthful and they will strive to reassure their neighbours.'' REUTERS CH PM2301

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