Iran toughened its defiance of outside pressure on Monday, barring two experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency from entering its territory to inspect its nuclear programme.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said the Islamic republic would not admit the two specific but unnamed inspectors and urged them to be replaced.

Mr Salehi accused the inspectors of compiling an “utterly untruthful” report and disclosing its contents in breach of procedures. “We asked that they would not ever send these two inspectors to Iran and instead assign two others,” he said.

The IAEA’s most recent report, released in May, expressed concern about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme. Western diplomats in Tehran suspect that what particularly angered the regime was a clause that referred to “pyroprocessing” allegedly taking place in the Jabr Ibn Hayan research laboratory in Tehran.

The IAEA said inspectors had visited the laboratory to discover whether this process – which could be used to purify uranium for use in nuclear weapons – had been carried out. But the inspectors reported that Iran had removed an electrochemical cell, which could have been important evidence.

Mr Salehi stressed that IAEA experts were not entitled to visit sites without warning, because Iran was not committed to the additional protocol, which allowed this.

The decision to bar certain inspectors from the country is within Iran’s rights, but has not happened since 2005. The IAEA said it had “full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the inspectors concerned” and the latest report had been “fully accurate”.

Diplomats say this could be part of Iran’s answer to a round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations this month. “There are hardliners in the regime who are calling for downgrading relations with the IAEA,” said a western official in Tehran. “The government is under pressure to say they are doing something.”

Diplomats are looking to see if this is the first in a series of escalations. “In the post-sanctions environment, Iran is looking for ways to react and has promised to review co-operation with the IAEA, which is worrying,” said a western official in Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters.

There are fears that Iran might step up its enrichment of uranium at its Natanz plant. “The exclusion of the inspectors is a less powerful way to signal their retaliation, but is still worrying,” the official said.

Diplomats expect Iran to accept replacements for the two banned inspectors. It has continued to enrich uranium in defiance of six UN resolutions, four of which imposed sanctions.

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