Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Iran Declares Nuclear Advance

Washington Post:

Uranium Enriched To New Levels, President Says

By Karl Vick and Dafna Linzer

Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, April 12, 2006; A01

ISTANBUL, April 11 -- Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to new levels, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday, proclaiming a technical breakthrough that advances both the country's nuclear program and the international controversy surrounding it.

"I'm announcing officially that Iran has now joined the countries that have nuclear technology," Ahmadinejad said in a carefully staged presentation televised live across Iran. "This is a very historic moment, and it's because of the Iranian people and their belief. And this is the start of the progress of this country."

Standing before a sweeping backdrop featuring doves around an Iranian flag, Ahmadinejad said the country was moving toward enriching uranium on an industrial scale to supply nuclear fuel for power plants, not the weapons that the Bush administration and other governments say are Tehran's real goal.

"We are saying again that the nuclear technology is only for the purpose of peace and nothing else," Ahmadinejad said.

Ahmadinejad's announcement came midway through a 30-day period that the U.N. Security Council gave Iran to cease all work toward enrichment, though the council threatened no specific punishment if Iran continued. In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the announcement signaled Iran's continued defiance of the international effort to freeze the country's nuclear program.

"This is a regime that needs to be building confidence with the international community," McClellan said. "Instead, it's moving in the wrong direction."

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said the breakthrough came Monday at the pilot enrichment plant in Natanz, where Iran removed U.N. inspection seals earlier this year. Gholamreza Aghazadeh said enrichment was to 3.5 percent, an amount consistent with a fuel cycle and far below the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

"This achievement has paved the way for Iran to start its industrial-scale production and, to enter this stage, we are trying to put in operation a complex of 3,000 centrifuges" by mid-March of next year, Aghazadeh said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog group, confirmed that the Iranians were operating an array of 164 centrifuges, and inspectors arriving in Tehran on Wednesday will seek to verify the production of a token amount of nuclear fuel. Producing amounts large enough to power an electrical plant or -- if enriched long enough -- to make a bomb would require several thousand centrifuges, orchestrated in cascades whose constant operation poses significant technical challenges.

"This means they can operate a larger cascade, but can they do it for a long time? We don't know," said a Western official closely involved in monitoring Iran's progress.

Iran had previously enriched uranium to a level of about 2 percent, using a smaller cascade, and separately enriched uranium to about 15 percent during laser experiments in 2002. Bomb-grade uranium must be enriched to a level of well over 80 percent.

IAEA inspectors have monitored much of the work being conducted in Iran during frequent visits over the last month, and the cascade of centrifuges is being monitored by IAEA cameras.

Agency officials told diplomats almost a month ago that the Iranians were close to completing the 164-centrifuge cascade and would begin testing it with inert gas and then a small quantity of uranium gas. Though it is technically possible, most nuclear experts agree it is unlikely Iran would be able to make bomb-grade uranium with the 164-centrifuge cascade.

Still, experts and diplomats called enrichment a significant breakthrough in Iran's nuclear program. The current effort dates from the late 1980s, when Iran was at war with neighboring Iraq, and grew more intense in 2000.

"It is an acceleration of the pace of their technology, which certainly worries us," said a European diplomat in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity under embassy ground rules. "The bottom line is they completely ignored what the rest of the world tells them to do. So they'll have to take the consequences, I guess."

A U.S. diplomat was more skeptical. "We don't yet know if it's true or not, and getting one little drop doesn't mean much anyhow," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Some Western diplomats were awaiting reaction from Moscow and Beijing, whose positions will be key to any Security Council response. Others said they were waiting to hear more from the Iranians, who might try to reopen negotiations with Europe now that Iran has accomplished what it set out to prove.

"We all knew they were going to do this. The question is: What will they do next?" said one European diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the IAEA, is scheduled to arrive in Tehran Wednesday night to renew talks. Diplomats said they expected Iran to hand additional documents over to ElBaradei and to resolve outstanding questions about the extent and history of the nuclear program.

Tuesday's presentation by Ahmadinejad, in the ornately tiled museum of Iran's holiest shrine in the northeastern city of Mashad, reflected a determined effort to strike a balanced tone for domestic and international audiences. In a country that writes in Persian, the only writing on the stage -- "Nuclear energy is our certain right" -- was in English.

Addressing an Iranian population that complains of having fallen behind in economic development over the past quarter-century, Ahmadinejad framed the announcement as an epochal scientific achievement, "the start of progress in this country." Iran's theocratic government has struggled to control perceptions of the nuclear issue, privately warning Tehran newspapers not to report on the subject. "The Iran crisis they talk about does not exist in Iran," Ahmadinejad said in another recent speech.

On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad advised governments critical of Iran, "Don't create hate in the Iranian people's hearts."

"What we are doing today and what we are doing in the future will be in the framework of Iranian rights and according to the regulation of all people's rights by the International Atomic Energy Agency," Ahmadinejad said. The agency has consistently differed on that point, repeatedly citing Iran for withholding details of a nuclear enterprise it kept under wraps for 18 years. "We believe in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," the president also declared, affirming Iran's membership in a pact Iranian officials have, at tense moments, threatened to quit. "We believe in improving international regulation. In that respect, we continue our activity toward nuclear technology for industrial use."

The statesmanlike tone of Ahmadinejad's speech contrasted sharply with his remarks the night before, when the hard-line conservative leader was alternately confrontational and magnanimous.

"They know they cannot do a damned thing," Ahmadinejad was quoted by Iran's state broadcaster as saying, referring to the Security Council, where permanent members Russia and China have proved reluctant to back U.S. efforts to move toward imposing sanctions on Iran.

Ahmadinejad that night also called the IAEA "liars in their claim that we have breached" its rules, "since we conduct our activities openly."

But even then, he signaled no change in Iran's level of cooperation with the agency. "We invite them to come here and see everything personally," he said. "We have no hard feelings to anyone."

Linzer reported from New York.

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