On two fronts, one nuclear, Iran is defiant
TEHRAN, Iran: Iran's leaders issued dual, defiant statements on Sunday, with the president announcing that the nation had 3,000 active centrifuges to enrich uranium and the top ayatollah appointing a new Islamic Revolutionary Guards commander who once advocated military force against students.
The pairing of the messages, just days after the United Nations' top nuclear official said Iran was striking conciliatory poses, appeared intended to reaffirm the country's refusal to back down to pressure from the United States over its nuclear program and its role in Iraq, political analysts in Iran said. And it came as the Bush administration was celebrating progress in its talks with North Korea to shut down that country's nuclear programs.
Indeed, the timing and tone of Iran's declarations may be more politically significant than their content, particularly in the case of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran had finally reached its stated goal of developing 3,000 centrifuges.
Many technical experts have expressed skepticism over Iran's periodic claims of enrichment breakthroughs, saying the assertions often turn out to be exaggerated.
That seemed to be the case again on Sunday, though nuclear experts said that even if Ahmadinejad was overreaching, it would be only a matter of time before the boast became true. The most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, released Thursday, said Iran had 1,968 centrifuges enriching uranium at its main Natanz plant, 328 in testing, and 328 in assembly — for a total of 2,624. The report noted that the assessment was accurate as of Aug. 19, or two weeks ago.
The goal of 3,000 centrifuges is significant to nuclear experts: they say that if Iran could spin that many centrifuges nonstop for a year, it could make enough highly enriched uranium for a single atom bomb.
But Mohamed ElBaradei, the atomic energy agency director general, said in an interview last week that Iran seemed to be intentionally slowing its progress in an effort to strike a conciliatory note as the United Nations Security Council demanded it stop the nuclear work completely. "My gut feeling," he said, "is that it's primarily for political reasons."
Still, Ahmadinejad's new claim was a direct challenge to that notion, and to efforts by the United States and European countries to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. "The West thought the Iranian nation would give in after just a resolution, but now we have taken another step in the nuclear progress and launched more than 3,000 centrifuge machines, installing a new cascade every week," state television quoted the president as saying.
The White House warned that a new round of sanctions was likely in the wake of Iran's refusal to cooperate. "This kind of announcement is inconsistent with Iran's recent comments on cooperation with the IAEA," said a spokesman, Robert Saliterman.
The coinciding message about the change at the top of the Revolutionary Guards, made by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had distinct ramifications for the United States as well.
There have been reports that the Bush administration is considering declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, opening the way to further economic sanctions against Iran because the Guards are involved in nearly every aspect of the state-controlled economy. (Last week, a senior administration official involved in the internal debate said the designation may instead be limited to the Quds Force, which the United States accuses of being particularly active in Iraq.)
The Revolutionary Guards are also believed to be deeply involved in the country's nuclear program, and any action against it or the Quds Force is perceived in Washington as a way of stepping up pressure on Iran's nuclear aspirations as well.
Iran still rejects Western accusations that it is seeking nuclear weapons, insisting that its program is solely for peaceful purposes. And it has reached agreement with the atomic energy agency finally to answer questions about many years of past nuclear activities that have fueled suspicions that it has been secretly trying to develop a weapons program.
But that agreement was dismissed by the United States as a half step that ignored Washington and Europe's primary demand: that Iran stop enrichment.
Iran's statements, in addition to ratcheting up defiance of international pressure, had distinct domestic political overtones as well, analysts said. "He has to feed his domestic clientele," one European diplomat who works with the atomic agency said Sunday.
In Tehran, Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst and former government official, said, "What is important is the spirit that dominates the system, and that has not changed."
The news of the change at the top of the Revolutionary Guards, in particular, was greeted with surprise and keen interest by Iranians.
Ayatollah Khamenei announced that General Yahya Rahim Safavi, who had led the force for a decade, would be replaced by Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari.
The Guards, which has about 200,000 members, controls a huge empire that has a stake in every significant corner of Iran's economy and its civil system of governance. Ahmadinejad was a member of the Guards during the 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq, and he has placed dozens of former members in leadership positions around the country and in the central government in Tehran.
The Guards are, by design, the most economic and politically independent body in the country, outside of the supreme leader's office. Jafari has an established record of support for the theocratic system of government, and its hard-line policies.
In 1999, he showed a willingness to use the guard's military force to quell student riots. In a letter to Mohammad Khatami, then the president, he wrote, "We have reached the end of our rope and can no longer tolerate it if the situation is not confronted."