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By Rufat Abbasov

Written by: Staff

BAKU, Apr 20 (Reuters) The prospect of the United States using force to halt Iran's nuclear programme is empty talk, Iranian Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said today.

US President George W Bush says he is using diplomacy to curb Iran's atomic ambitions, but has not ruled out military options, even including a nuclear strike, to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

''The United States has been threatening Iran for 27 years and this is not new for us. Therefore we are never afraid of US threats,'' Najjar told reporters during a visit to neighbouring Azerbaijan.

''If you take into account the fact that they are not doing anything, this shows it is just talk,'' he said.

''We are ready to resolve all issues through negotiations (but) if we are confronted with something, we are ready to deal with it,'' the minister added.

Iran says its nuclear programme is solely to generate electricity. The United States and other major powers suspect that Tehran's efforts to enrich uranium could allow it to divert material for clandestine bomb-making.

Iranian nuclear negotiators were in Moscow on Thursday but there was no word on who they were meeting or what they were discussing.

Late yesterday the delegation met representatives of the so-called EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- but a British diplomat said there had been no breakthrough.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog is to file a report on April 28 that is likely to criticise Iran for failing to comply with a Security Council demand for a halt to enrichment.

Washington, backed by Britain and France, wants the Security Council to approve targeted sanctions on Iran, such as travel bans and asset freezes against its leaders.

But China and Russia, the two other veto-holders on the council, are not convinced sanctions will help. Talks between the big powers in Moscow this week failed to produce any detailed consensus on punitive measures.

Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea state on Iran's northern border, is an ally of Washington that has run joint exercises with the US military.

Azeri and Russian media have speculated that the United States may use Azerbaijan to apply pressure on Iran or even to launch a military strike. Officials in Washington and Baku have flatly denied this.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev is to fly to Washington next week at the invitation of the White House.

Reuters SHB RS1442

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