By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran started war games on Monday and its president rejected a demand by major powers that it stop enriching uranium as â€œillegitimate,â€ showing no sign of backing down in a stand-off over Tehranâ€™s nuclear ambitions.
Missile units of the elite Revolutionary Guardsâ€™ naval and air forces began war games, Iranian news agencies said, hours after the U.S. Navy said it had begun exercises in the Gulf.
Speculation about an attack on the worldâ€™s fourth biggest oil exporter over its nuclear program rose after a report last month said Israel had practiced such a strike. Fears of military confrontation helped send world oil prices to record highs.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday his country would not stop enriching uranium, work which Tehran says is aimed at generating power but which the West fears may be part of a covert nuclear weapons program.
It was Ahmadinejadâ€™s first comment on the dispute since Iran delivered its response on Friday to a package of incentives offered by world powers seeking to curb its nuclear activities. Details of the response were not made public.
â€œThey offer to hold talks but at the same time they threaten us and say we should accept their illegitimate demand to halt (enrichment work),â€ Ahmadinejad told reporters in Malaysia, where he was attending a summit of eight developing countries.
â€œThey want us to abandon our right (to nuclear technology),â€ the president said.
By contrast, Iranâ€™s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki spoke during the weekend of a â€œnew environmentâ€ for diplomacy over Iranâ€™s nuclear program.
The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany demand that Iran suspend its enrichment work before formal talks can start on their revised package of incentives, which includes help to develop a civilian nuclear program.
Tehran has repeatedly refused to stop producing enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel for power plants, or, if refined much more, can provide material for nuclear weapons.
The offer of trade and other incentives proposed by the world powers was presented last month by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to Iranâ€™s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
So far the Iranian governmentâ€™s formal response to the latest offer has not been made public and there have been mixed signals in statements by its senior officials.
Senior officials from world powers held a conference call on Monday to discuss Iranâ€™s response, the State Department said.
â€œWe are consulting with our partners in the P5+1 (permanent five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) on issues related to that response and what we might hear and what we have heard thus far,â€ a spokesman said of the conference call.
The goals of Iranâ€™s war games included raising combat readiness and the capability of missile units. Exercises started a few hours ago, the Fars and Mehr news agencies said, without giving details on where the maneuvers were taking place.
The Guards often hold maneuvers in the Gulf.
The Revolutionary Guardsâ€™ head said in remarks published in late June that Tehran would impose controls on shipping in the Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz if it was attacked.
The U.S. Navy last week vowed that Iran would not be allowed to block the Gulf waterway which carries crude from the worldâ€™s largest oil exporting region.