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Icahn: Ackman is the one backed into a corner on Herbalife

Billionaire investor Carl Icahn rejected any assertion Tuesday that he is backed into a corner on troubled nutritional supplement company Herbalife.

In fact, he said it's his long-time rival, Bill Ackman, who has the far more tenuous position.

"If anyone should feel boxed in, it's Ackman," Icahn said in an exclusive interview with CNBC.com. "Ackman is an astute student of the market, as I am, and I think he would probably agree that there is very rarely, if ever, a company with the short interest, as it was just announced of 27.2 million shares of the 92 million shares outstanding. Of the 92 million, there are 20 percent to 25 percent that are closely held."

"The only time you see the ratio very close to that is in companies that are on the verge of bankruptcy," he added. "Obviously, Herbalife is not anywhere near that position, and is in fact growing dramatically in countries such as China."

The statement comes days after Icahn upped his stake in Herbalife by 2.3 million shares, bringing his total holdings to 19.3 million shares with a market value of some $1.7 billion. Shares rose immediately after the Friday revelation, but have tailed since, down about 4 percent this week.

Icahn remains committed to his position. It's part of a broader story that features a long-simmering feud between him and Ackman, the head of Pershing Square Management, which had taken a $1 billion short position against Herbalife

The two famously squared off in a shout-down on CNBC back in January 2013, then seemed to reconcile at the 2014 Delivering Alpha conference, an event presented annually by CNBC and Institutional Investor.

Icahn's increased stake also occurred after Ackman had speculated on whether Icahn was preparing to sell.

The statements from Icahn to CNBC.com Tuesday indicate the battle may be back on.

"I don't believe any professional short-sellers would ever take a position in a company with these numbers," Icahn said. "As the old saying goes, fools will go where angels fear to tread."

A representative for Pershing Square declined to comment. Herbalife officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Icahn earlier this summer was granted the right to purchase up to 35 percent of Herbalife's shares. However, The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Jefferies had been shopping for buyers of what had been an 18 percent stake that Icahn was holding.

Analysts are watching the drama closely for what happens next.

"It's hard to say exactly what Carl Icahn's endgame is here," said Peter Cohn, an analyst at Height Analytics who covers Herbalife. "For now, we have to take it at face value that he is sticking around, and I think that is positive for the company."