"The policy of the Islamic republic of Iran is completely defensive, but if we are attacked, the answer of the armed forces will be swift, firm and destructive," Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on Friday.

He was responding to a question about Iran's reaction in case of an attack on its nuclear facilities, already under scrutiny as international unease grows over the Islamic republic's nuclear intentions.

"The doomed fate of (Iraqi ex-president) Saddam (Hussein) must be a lesson for officials of the usurping Zionist regime," Najjar said in a reference to the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 in which around a million people were killed.

Angry rhetoric  

President Ahmadinejad has
recently strongly criticised Israel

A heated verbal exchange has intensified between the Jewish state and Iran over a series of anti-Israel outbursts by  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

In October President Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and this week he described the Jewish Holocaust as a "myth".

European leaders said in a draft statement on Friday that Ahmadinejad's statements could be grounds for sanctions against Iran.

"The EU condemns unreservedly President Ahmadinejad's call for the eradication of Israel and his denial of the Holocaust and the European Council is gravely concerned at Iran's failure to build confidence that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful," the statement said.

Israeli officials and politicians, meanwhile, have discussed the possibility of an attack on Iran, either alone or with other countries, that would aim to cripple Iran's nuclear development capabilities. Amos Gilad, an official with the Defence Ministry, said on Sunday that Israel has not ruled out a military strike against Iran if it advances further toward nuclear weapons.

Israeli plans

Israel is also acquiring dozens of US warplanes with long-range fuel tanks that would allow them to reach Tehran and return without refuelling.

"The policy of Iran is completely defensive, but if we are attacked, the answer of the armed forces will be swift, firm and destructive"

Mostafa Mohammad Najjar,
Iranian defence minister

Israel, whose warplanes destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, maintains a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.

While it neither admits nor denies possessing nuclear arms, Israel is thought to harbour about 200 nuclear warheads deployed on ballistic missiles, aircraft and submarines, according to the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There are also concerns that a US attack on Iran is possible, since senior US officials have repeatedly declined to rule out such action should Tehran acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran denies that it seeks nuclear bombs, saying its programme is confined to electricity generation. But the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said it cannot give Iran a clean bill of health because of incomplete data.