Saying the US had too many problems in Iraq to attack his country, President Khatami said Iran had plans in place should Washington make any aggressive moves.

“The possibility of a US attack against Iran is very low. We think America is not in a position to take a lunatic action of attacking Iran,” President Khatami said.

“But if, God forbid, it commits an act of aggression, we have prepared ourselves. We have plans for it,” he added.

He didn’t elaborate on how Iran would respond or defend itself.

His remarks, made at the end of a 10-day tour of Africa, were the most senior response to recent reports indicating the United States may be considering military action against Iran.

Earlier on Thursday, US Vice President Dick Cheney identified Iran as being at the top of the administration’s list of world trouble spots.

Mr Cheney, one of the chief architects of the Iraq war, emphasised Washington would use diplomacy to address what he said were serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and ties to terrorism.

Speaking just before the second inauguration of President George W Bush, Mr Cheney expressed concern that Israel “might well decide to act first” to eliminate any nuclear threat from Tehran.

“We don’t want a war in the Middle East if we can avoid it. And certainly in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically,” Mr Cheney added.

In 1981 Israel set a precedent for such action when its warplanes destroyed Iraq’s French-built Osiraq reactor, seen as the key to President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.

On Monday, US President George W Bush refused to rule out the possibility of using military force against Iran over its controversial nuclear program.

“I hope we can solve it diplomatically but I will never take any option off the table,” he said.

The administration has also accused Iran of interfering in Iraq, where US forces have been bogged down in a ferocious insurgency since the 2003 invasion.

If Iran resists demands to rein in its nuclear program, Mr Cheney promised Washington would take the matter to the UN Security Council and seek international sanctions.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration imposed economic penalties this month against Chinese companies it accused of helping Tehran improve its longer-range ballistic missiles.

While Washington described Iran’s nuclear program as “fairly robust”, Tehran denies its nuclear facilities have a military capacity.

Iran’s Ambassador to Britain, Mohammad Hussein Adeli says the US should learn from its experience in Iraq.

“Waging war against Muslims, disrespecting and ignoring its allies including the Europeans only created tension, instability, less secure world, and created an ocean of mistrust between the US and the rest of the world,” he said.

The New Yorker magazine reported this week that the United States has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran to help identify potential nuclear, chemical and missile targets.

The White House and Pentagon have disputed the report.

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