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Iran may develop nuclear weapons and pull out from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if international pressure against its nuclear program continues, a senior Iranian official warned yesterday.

The statements made by Iranian Parliament Vice Speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar mark the first time a senior Iranian official specifically mentioned the development of nuclear weapons as part of the country's nuclear program, which to date Tehran had insisted was for peaceful purposes.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Saturday that his country poses no threat to Israel, and that no one can deprive Iran of its right to nuclear technology.

Ahmadinejad's defiant stance comes days ahead of a United Nations deadline for Iran to halt uranium enrichment work.

"No one can deprive a nation of its rights based on its capabilities," he said in a speech to inaugurate a new phase of a heavy-water reactor project southwest of Tehran.

"Iran is not a threat to anybody, not even to the Zionist regime," he said, using the Islamic Republic's term for arch-enemy Israel, which it does not recognize.

The Iranian president affirmed Iran's right to develop nuclear technology even if sanctions are imposed.

"They may impose some restrictions on us under pressure. But will they be able to prevent the thoughts of a nation? Will they be able to prevent the progress and technology of a nation? They have to accept the reality of a powerful, peace-loving and developed Iran. This is in the interest of all governments and all nations whether they like it or not," he said

Ahmadinejad inaugurated the project and toured the site at Khondab, near Arak, 120 miles (190 km) southwest of the capital Tehran. The plant's plutonium by-product could be used to make atomic warheads.

Likud MK Silvan Shalom called on the world to stand up against the Iranian threat.

"This is a crucial time for the international community. Will it once again cave in to the Iranians or will it put an end to the dangerous plans of Iran?" he said. "It would be best for the world to express its determination today at the very last moment before it is exposed to an existential threat. Israel must prepare so that it can prevent the dangerous developments if the world continues to waffle."

Labor MK Ephraim Sneh warned in a statement that Iran's heavy water production marks "another leap in Iran's advance toward a nuclear bomb."

Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, said Iran's progress shows that international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are insufficient. "Israel has to draw the conclusions and to prepare itself militarily," said Sneh.

Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the plant's production is 16 tons of heavy water with a purity of 15 percent per year, and 80 tons of heavy water with a purity of nearly 100 percent. He said the facility will be used to treat AIDS and cancer and for other medicinal and agricultural purposes.

Mohammed Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's atomic organization, called the plant "one of the biggest nuclear projects" in the country, state-run television reported.

"Inaugurating the heavy water production plant in Arak is a big step towards using Iran's right, which means reaching peaceful nuclear technology," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was quoted by state television as saying.

Western nations accuse Iran of seeking to master technology to produce nuclear weapons. Iran, the world's fourth largest oil exporter, insists its aim is only for electricity.

The West's main concern is Iran's program for enriching uranium, a process that can be used to make fuel for nuclear power stations or material for bombs.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on July 31 giving Iran 30 days to halt enrichment or face possible sanctions. The resolution also cited a call by the IAEA for Iran to reconsider construction of its heavy water reactor project.

Iran's deputy parliament speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, warned the West in comments published by Iran's Sharq newspaper on Saturday that putting pressure on the country could prompt public calls for Iran to pursue a weapons program.

"Be afraid of the day that the Iranian nation comes into the streets and stages demonstrations to ask the government to produce nuclear weapons to combat the threats," he said.

Iranian officials consistently say Iran has no plans to build atomic weapons. Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a religious decree, saying making, stockpiling or using nuclear weapons was against Islamic beliefs, the official IRNA news agency reported in August 2005.

Six world powers have offered Iran incentives to halt enrichment. But Iran has so far only hinted it might be ready to consider halting the work as a result of talks, not as a precondition. The reply seemed designed to divide opinion among the powers.

The United States has warned of swift action on sanctions. Britain, Germany and France have been less conclusive in public. Russia and China, both trade partners of Iran, have been unwilling and could veto sanctions in the Security Council.