Tehran Will Enrich Uranium to Higher Levels

Members of the United Nations are calling for new sanctions against Iran after it made formal notification Monday that it would enrich uranium to higher levels. Officials from the United States, France and Russia called Monday for stronger measures against Tehran after Iran told the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency that it would begin enriching its stockpile of uranium for a medical reactor in Tehran as early as Tuesday.

The statement was carried Sunday on state TV as the country celebrates the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. It came amid a flurry of announcements in which Mr. Ahmadinejad has attempted to project an image of strength, even as the regime faces the threat of further domestic unrest later this week. It also seemed to contradict Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements last week that Iran was willing to embrace a deal brokered last year by the International Atomic Energy Agency for Iran to ship the bulk of its lower enriched uranium overseas to be further enriched to the 20% purity level needed for its medical reactor.

At issue is a proposal for Iran to swap its uranium stockpile for enriched uranium processed into fuel rods outside the country. Iran was initially reported last October to have accepted the proposal, but later backed away. Western officials say Iran has rejected the deal, but Tehran accuses the West of failing to respond to its proposals. Iran insists the move is meant only to provide fuel for its research reactor.

On Monday, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, delivered a letter to the agency setting out the plan to begin enriching its stockpile to 20-percent purity, news reports said, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally ordered his atomic scientists on Sunday to begin the process. Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most contentious issues between the West and Tehran, which rejects Western suspicions that it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon. In recent days Iran has sent a perplexing series of conflicting signals about plans that could move the country closer to producing weapons-grade fuel.

Iran, which says uranium enrichment is part of its program to generate electricity, not make nuclear bombs, said on Monday it would start making higher-grade reactor fuel on Tuesday and add 10 uranium enrichment plants over the next year.

Soltanieh told The Associated Press that he informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of the decision to enrich at least some of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to 20 per cent, considered the threshold value for highly enriched uranium.

Soltanieh, who represents Iran at the Vienna-based IAEA, also said that the UN agency’s inspectors now overseeing enrichment to low levels would be able to stay on site to fully monitor the process.

And he blamed world powers for Iran’s decision, asserting that it was their fault that a plan that foresaw Russian and French involvement in supplying the research reactor had failed.

“We cannot leave hospitals and patients desperately waiting for radio isotopes” being produced at the Tehran reactor and used in cancer treatment, he added. (CBC)

Soltanieh declined to say how much of Iran’s stockpile — now estimated at 1.8 tons — would be enriched. Nor did he say when the process would begin.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner accused Iran of “blackmail,” according to media reports. (CBC) Kouchner added, “The only thing we can do, alas, is apply sanctions given that negotiations are impossible.” (New York Times)

At a news conference in Paris, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked whether the United States had any guarantees that Israel would not attack Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. He avoided a direct answer. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday he believed there was still time for sanctions to work to halt Iran’s nuclear program despite the Iranian president’s decision. Asked at a news conference in Rome whether he believed the president’s order to produce higher-grade uranium made military action more likely, Mr. Gates said that as long as the international community is able to present a united front, sanctions can still be effective.“If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work,” Gates said at a media event in Rome on Sunday, one day before Iran made its official notification to the UN. (CBC) Despite that apparent shift by the Iranian government, Mr. Gates has said he didn’t believe the two sides were near a deal, a stance he reiterated on Sunday. Gates said the Obama administration and the other nations had reached out sincerely to reassure Iran and entice it to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. “All of these initiatives have been rejected,” Mr. Gates said. While “we must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue,” he said, “the only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track. But it will require all of the international community to work together.” (New York Times) The White House and European Union also issued a statement Tuesday expressing concern about signs of a renewed crackdown by the Tehran government on protesters around the upcoming anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. In the strongly-worded statement, the United States and Europe condemned “the continuing human rights violations in Iran” since last year’s disputed elections, maintaining that Iran’s “large scale detentions and mass trials, the threatened execution of protestors, the intimidation of family members of those detained and the continuing denial to its citizens of the right to peaceful expression are contrary to human rights norms.” (New York Times)

A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Tehran had notified the U.N. nuclear watchdog of its plan and said it would damage chances of saving a proposed atomic fuel supply deal between Iran and world powers. Iran’s government said it acted in frustration over Western powers’ unwillingness to consider its requests for amendments to a U.N. draft plan for the powers to provide highly processed fuel material for a nuclear medicine reactor in Tehran.

Analysts say the move may be a negotiating tactic to prod the West into accepting Iranian terms for a nuclear fuel swap. But it could also backfire if it only serves to make Western powers determined to push for more sanctions against Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, over its refusal to suspend enrichment.

U.S. efforts to rally members of the United Nations Security Council to support new sanctions have run into obstacles in Beijing, where the Chinese government has shown resistance to the plan. Although he didn’t single China out by name, Mr. Gates’s call for international unity in the face of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s decision appeared aimed at Beijing. “Rather than single any country out, I would simply say I think all of us can do more,” he said. (Wall Street Journal) Among the big powers only China, which can block any U.N. sanctions with its veto on the Security Council, has remained unswervingly opposed to punishing the big Middle Eastern oil exporter. Several of the world powers dealing with Iran’s nuclear issue are in favor President Obama’s call for tougher sanctions, but China has said such action could forestall a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.

Germany said on Monday Iran’s announced intention to crank up nuclear work showed it was not cooperating with the IAEA, which has also called for a nuclear suspension and closer inspections.

In Moscow, Konstantin I. Kosachyov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian Parliament, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as urging the international community to prepare “serious measures.” (New York Times)

On Sunday, Iranian officials said higher enrichment would start on Tuesday, but any reconfiguring of the centrifuge chains now enriching low enriched uranium is expected to take days, if not weeks.

Even before Iran’s formal notification of the IAEA, some nations criticized the plan and suggested it would be met by increased pressure for new penalties on the Islamic Republic.

Iran has defied five UN Security Council resolutions — and three sets of UN sanctions — aimed at pressuring it to freeze enrichment, and has instead steadily expanded its program.

Iran’s enrichment plans “would be a deliberate breach” of the resolutions, the British Foreign Office said. (CBC)

Also on Monday, Iran’s defence minister announced his country has launched two production lines to build unmanned aircraft with surveillance and attack capabilities.

A senior air force commander, Gen. Heshmatollah Kasiri, told the official IRNA news agency that Iran will “soon” deploy an air defence system with capabilities matching, or superior to, those of the Russian S-300 system. (CBC)

The S-300 missiles are capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of more than 145 kilometres and altitudes of over 27,000 metres.

Kasiri said Iran produces its entire air defence needs domestically, but he still criticized Russia for not delivering the S-300 missiles for “unacceptable reasons.” Russia agreed in 2007 to sell the S-300 system to Iran, but the missiles have not been delivered. The delay has not been explained, but Israel and the United States have strongly objected to the deal.

The S-300 missiles would bolster Iran’s air defences at a time when Israel refuses to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites. Israel and the West believe that Iran’s nuclear program is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is working on atomic power only for peaceful purposes.

The official news agency IRNA quoted the Air Force commander, Heshmatollah Kassiri, as saying that, since Russia had for “unacceptable reasons” not delivered the missiles, “in the near future, a new locally made air defense system will be unveiled by the country’s experts and scientists which is as powerful as the S-300 missile defense system, or even stronger.” (New York Times) The claim reflects continued nervousness in Tehran over potential military attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites by Israel or the United States, which have declined to rule out such action. Press TV reported Monday that Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi had inaugurated two production lines for the manufacture of advanced remotely piloted aircraft to improve its defense capabilities.

The developments came a few days after Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared to revive hope that Iran might accept a Western deal to swap much of its uranium for medical-reactor fuel that cannot be weaponized, a deal the Iranians had rejected. On Monday, Mr. Soltanieh blamed the West for failing to respond to “our positive logical and technical proposal” to exchange Iran’s uranium for imported nuclear fuel rods. (New York Times) The United States and the I.A.E.A. had proposed the swap because it would deprive Iran of stockpiles that it could convert into bomb fuel, while providing Tehran with fuel rods that would be very difficult to use in a weapon. But as soon as Iranian negotiators brought that deal back to Tehran in October, they met a wall of opposition from the military, from hard-liners, and ultimately from opposition leaders.

Iran frequently makes announcements about the strides being made by its military industries, but it is virtually impossible to determine independently the actual capabilities or combat worthiness of the weapons Iran is producing. The country began a military self-sufficiency program in 1992, under which it produces a range of weapons including tanks, medium-range missiles, jet fighters and torpedoes.

Iran has been convulsed by a series of large-scale, often violent demonstrations following contested June 12 elections. Opposition leaders have hijacked a number of state-sponsored holidays by staging antigovernment protests. They have called on demonstrators to pour into the streets of Tehran and other cities on Feb. 11, the culmination of celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders have heightened threats of a harsh crackdown on protests, including hanging two political prisoners late last month and threatening to execute demonstrators who have been detained in earlier antigovernment protests.

At the same time, Iran has appeared eager to flex its muscles on the world stage despite recent threats by the U.S. of economic sanctions. Last week, for instance,Tehran unveiled a series of what it described as breakthroughs in its domestic space program. That worried Western officials, who say satellite technology can be used to develop missile-delivery systems.

For Washington and other Western powers—which worry Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons—the IAEA-brokered deal was seen as a first step in building confidence between the two sides. It would also deprive Iran of enough fissile material to make a bomb, at least for a time. For Tehran, the deal would be a quick way to obtain enough fuel to keep its medical reactor running. But Iranian authorities never approved the deal and have since insisted on various changes.

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