Iran claims membership in nuclear club as U.S. threatens Security Council action

Posted in Iran | 12-Apr-06 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Tehran 'determined' to complete work on heavy-water reactor

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday Iran had joined the group of countries possessing nuclear technology and was determined to achieve industrial-scale uranium enrichment. In immediate reaction, the U.S. said Iran was "moving in the wrong direction" with its nuclear program and if it persisted, Washington would discuss possible next steps with the UN Security Council.

"I am officially announcing that Iran has joined the group of those countries which have nuclear technology. This is the result of the Iranian nation's resistance," Ahmadinejad said in a televised address from the northeastern city of Mashhad.

"Based on international regulations, we will continue our path until we achieve production of industrial-scale enrichment," he said, adding that the West must respect Iran's right to peaceful atomic technology.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Washington would "be talking about the way forward with the other members of the Security Council and Germany about how to address this" if Iran continued to move in its current direction.

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said earlier that the Islamic Republic had enriched uranium to a level used in nuclear power plants.

"I am proud to announce that we have started enriching uranium to the 3.5 percent level," Gholamreza Aghazadeh said, adding the pilot enrichment plant in Natanz, south of Tehran, had started working Monday.

Aghazadeh said the progress in enrichment "paves the way for enrichment on an industrial scale," and disclosed Iran also had 110 tons of UF6 gas - the feedstock gas that is fed into centrifuges to be enriched.

He added Iran was "determined" to complete work on a heavy-water reactor in Arak, which could also produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon within three years.

The UN Security Council has demanded Iran shelve enrichment activity and on March 29 asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report on its compliance in 30 days.

Influential former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also said Iran was producing enriched uranium from a cascade of 164 centrifuges.

"We operated the first unit which comprises of 164 centrifuges, gas was injected, and we got the industrial output," Rafsanjani said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA.

"There needs to be an expansion of operations if we are to have a complete industrial unit; tens of units are required to set up a uranium enrichment plant," said Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani's announcement may have been aimed at trumping Ahmadinejad and taking credit for progress in the nuclear program, which has broad support in Iran, analysts said.

"They are competing with each other over who will be the first person," political analyst Saeed Laylaz said.

An IAEA spokesman declined comment on Iran's announcement and said no official agency reaction was likely for the time being.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to visit Iran later this week to seek full Iranian cooperation with the Council and IAEA inquiries.

Analysts say advances in uranium enrichment technology by Iran may be the tripwire for the United States or Israel to take military action.

President George W. Bush on Monday dismissed reports of plans for military strikes on Iran as "wild speculation."

Fearing more unrest in the region, Saudi Arabia has asked Russia to block any bid by Washington to secure UN cover for an attack, a Russian diplomat said Tuesday.

During a visit to Moscow last week, the head of the Saudi National Security Council "urged Russia to strive to prevent the adoption of a Security Council resolution which the U.S. could use as justification to launch a military assault to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities," the diplomat told AFP in Riyadh.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former longtime ambassador to the United States who is often tasked with delicate missions, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on April 4.

Reflecting anxiety about the nuclear dispute, investors shifted into the safe-haven Swiss franc after Rafsanjani made his comments, traders said. The nuclear dispute has also been a factor helping to push up oil prices to record levels.

Two weeks ago IAEA diplomats said Iran had set up a "cascade" of 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant but no uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for enriched fuel, had yet been fed into them. It had tested 20 centrifuges, they added.

Iranian nuclear officials have previously said purifying uranium to 3.5 percent would require the operation of 164 centrifuges, which spin it at supersonic speeds to heighten the concentration of its most radioactive isotope, U-235.

The level of enrichment needed to trigger the nuclear chain reaction that detonates bombs is far higher, around 90 percent.

"It may be that they have begun feeding the 164. That might be the logical extent of progress since late March. It wouldn't be surprising," a European Union diplomat accredited to the IAEA said when asked about Ahmadinejad's teaser.

"164 centrifuges is still well short of producing enriched uranium in a significant quantity over a sustained period. But the more they do it, the more they learn the technology. So any form of enrichment is a red line for us," the diplomat said. - Agencies