Iran Announces Industrial Uranium Enrichment, Creates Tensions

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Monday that his country now has the capacity to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, ratcheting up Iran’s tensions with the West over suspicions that Tehran is developing atomic weapons.

Iran continues to insist that its program will generate only nuclear energy.

“Today, this country has joined the countries that produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale,” said Mr Ahmadinejad at the premier uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, central Iran. Monday’s announcement is widely considered a staged political and public relations event designed to bolster the regime’s popularity with Iranians while strengthening Tehran’s negotiating position with Western nations.

There has also been widespread speculation that Iran carefully managed the high-profile capture and release last week of 15 British sailors to increase its bargaining power.

Iran has become increasingly isolated over its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program, even for a short period. The response of the United States has been to lead efforts to impose economic sanctions on Iran through the UN Security Council; the British government has used its influence in the EU to secure similar sanctions.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s announcement drew sharp disapproval around the world.

US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “We are very concerned about Iran’s announcement that they entered an ‘industrial stage’ of nuclear fuel production.”

The British Foreign Office stated that Iran’s announcement indicates “a further breach of International Atomic Energy Agency and UN resolutions.”

This is a position supported by Ton Van Lierop, a spokesman for the EU executive arm of the European Commission who said “This does nothing to change our position. Iran must cooperate fully with the IAEA and follow the United Nations resolutions.”

UN chief Ban Ki-moon agreed: “It is very important for any member country to fully comply with Security Council resolutions. I urge the Iranian government to do so.”

Iran’s response to these rebukes was swift and defiant.

“If they pressure us further, we will have no choice but to reconsider our membership of the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty),” warned top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.

Such a move could spell the end of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA, which has been conducting routine inspections of Iran’s uranium enrichment plants under the provisions of the treaty.

Some analysts and diplomats who follow Iran’s nuclear program doubt that the country has made substantial progress in its nuclear enrichment program. They have said that Monday’s announcement seemed to be primarily a public relations exercise to enhance Tehran’s political capital at home and abroad.

“We are not aware of any technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program recently which would change the nature of work on enrichment being carried out in the country,” said a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, noted that Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech raised more questions than it answered, including how many of Iran’s 3,000 centrifuges are fully operational and whether uranium hexafluoride gas had been introduced into them.

“This was very much a political event staged to reassure a domestic audience that they are making progress towards achieving some milestones and to show the world that Iran is not about to comply with the UN Security Council demands despite the sanctions,” Mr Fitzpatrick told Reuters. “They could use the announcement to say, ‘We have achieved what we set out to achieve. Now we can pause and enter into negotiations from a position of strength.’”

Yet it is not clear how Iran’s announcement will change the current diplomatic standoff over its nuclear program, especially with the US.

President Bush has said that Washington will not negotiate unless Tehran halts its enrichment activities first. Iran has repeatedly responded that this is not an acceptable precondition for talks. President Bush further stepped up the pressure by refusing to rule out military strikes if Iran refuses to halt its enrichment program.

Two UN inspectors from the IAEA arrived in Iran on Tuesday to conduct inspections of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. They are expected to remain in Iran for one week.

Many Western analysts are not expecting the inspections to confirm that a significant measure of progress has been achieved since last April’s announcement that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to a level of 3.5 percent. This level of purity may be sufficient for developing nuclear fuel, but is still several years and technological advances removed from the 90 percent purity required to make atomic weapons.

Meanwhile, tensions between Iran and the West are pushing oil prices skyward, with the closing price on Tuesday reaching nearly $62 a barrel.


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