Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ahmadinejad: Iran has enriched uranium


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday that Iran has successfully enriched uranium.

"Iran has joined countries with nuclear technology," he said.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment activity by April 28. Iran has rejected the demand, saying it has a right to develop the process.

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is due in Iran this week for talks to try to resolve the standoff.

Iran's nuclear chief, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said Iran has produced 110 tons of uranium gas, the feedstock for enrichment. (Uranium enrichment explainer)

The amount is nearly twice the 60 tons of uranium hexaflouride, or UF-6, gas that Iran said last year that it had produced.

Aghazadeh made the announcement during a nationally televised speech in the northeastern city of Mashhad, attended by top military commanders and lawmakers. Aghazadeh spoke before the president made his comments.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Tehran is "moving in the wrong direction." If it persists, the United States will discuss possible next steps with U.N. Security Council members, McClellan said aboard Air Force One en route to Missouri.

Earlier in the day, new agencies quoted former President Hashemi Rafsanjani as saying that Iran has enriched uranium. The announcement was the first disclosure that Iran had successfully enriched uranium since February, when it began research at its enrichment facility in the town of Natanz.

Rafsanjani -- a former president who is currently head of the powerful Expediency Council, a key governing body -- released the news of the enrichment first in an interview with the Kuwait News Agency in Tehran.

"Iran has put into operation the first unit of 164 centrifuges, has injected (uranium) gas and has reached industrial production," Rafsanjani was quoted by the agency as saying. The interview was also carried by the Iranian Student News Agency.

"We should expand the work of these machines to achieve a full industrial line. We need dozens of these units (sets of 164 centrifuges) to achieve a uranium enrichment facility," he said.

Enriching uranium to a low level produces fuel for nuclear reactors. To a higher level, it produces the material for a nuclear bomb. Iran would require thousands of operating centrifuges to produce sufficient uranium for either purpose. But once the unit of 164 centrifuges is up and running, its scientists have the opportunity to perfect the technology for larger-scale production.

It was the first announcement that Iran had successfully enriched uranium. in February, Iran began research at its enrichment facility in the town of Natanz.

The United States and some in Europe accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, an accusation Tehran denies, saying it intends only to generate electricity.

Iran's announcement precedes IAEA visit

The IAEA is due to report to the U.N. Security Council on April 28 whether Iran has met its demand for a full halt to uranium enrichment. If Tehran has not complied, the council will consider the next step. The U.S. and Europe are pressing for sanctions against Iran, a step Russia and China have so far opposed.

In London, a spokesman for the British Foreign Office recalled that Iran was under Security Council orders to "resume full and sustained suspension of all its enrichment."

"The latest Iranian statement is not particularly helpful," the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.

Rafsanjani said the breakthrough would put Iran in a good position for the visit of ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"When ElBaradei arrives in Iran, he will face new circumstances," Rafsanjani said, according to KUNA.

In Vienna, officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are now in Iran, declined to comment on the report.

But a diplomat familiar with Tehran's enrichment program said it appeared to be accurate. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss information restricted to the agency.

Rafsanjani's role unclear

It was not clear why the announcement came first from Rafsanjani, who is heading to Kuwait on Wednesday. The ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani, who had the support of Iran's reformists, in presidential elections last year. Rafsanjani may have been trying to upstage the president and show Iranians that he remains powerful.

Kamal Daneshyar, head of Energy Committee at the Iranian parliament, said the announcement means Iran has mastered the technical hurdles needed to enrich uranium to the 3.5 percent required to produce fuel for a reactor.

"This is a major achievement. It means Iran is now able to produce nuclear fuel for its future nuclear reactors without any reliance on foreigners," Daneshyar told the AP.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped through a series of centrifuges, where it is spun to purify it. But the process is technically difficult, requiring delicate pipe connections between dozens of centrifuges -- or hundreds for larger scale production.


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