Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's too late to stop us now: Iran

The Age:

April 13, 2006

RUSSIA has joined a chorus of criticism over Iran's announcement that it had succeeded in enriching uranium. Iran's move was a "step in the wrong direction", Russia's Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

"It goes counter to the decisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the statement of the United Nations Security Council," Tass quoted a ministry spokesman as saying. "(Iran should) stop all work to enrich uranium, including research."

On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran had for the first time produced the enriched uranium needed for nuclear fuel, triggering a warning from Washington.

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program have been high in recent months and the UN has said Iran must halt uranium enrichment, a process Western nations believe Tehran wants to master so that it can develop weapons.

The Russian ministry spokesman did not say if Russia, which has taken a conciliatory line on Tehran's nuclear ambitions, would back sanctions against Iran. Moscow has until now opposed such a step, saying it would be counterproductive.

Tehran rejected Moscow's call yesterday, saying its nuclear program could not be stopped. "Iran's nuclear activities are like a waterfall which has begun to flow. It cannot be stopped," a senior Iranian official said.

Earlier, in a carefully stage-managed announcement meant to display a scientific triumph domestically and assert its sovereignty abroad, Iran declared it had joined the nuclear technology club.

Mr Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran had enriched uranium included — for the benefit of a worldwide television audience — a sign in English saying "Nuclear energy is our certain right". He said Iran was enriching uranium 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," he said.

But despite Tehran's apparent thumbing of its nose at the UN Security Council's demand to suspend uranium enrichment, diplomats are still uncertain what Iran's next step will be.

Mr Ahmadinejad has been making domestic political capital out of confronting the US, and the announcement that Iran is now capable of enriching uranium was obviously meant to play to national pride.

But having achieved this milestone, Iran must now decide to risk serious confrontation with the international community, including possible sanctions or even an American or Israeli military strike, or back off.

The compromise still on the table would be to allow Russia to produce uranium for its nuclear power plants.

Mr Ahmadinejad's announcement did not mean that Iran has joined the eight countries that have declared or undeclared nuclear weapons. Instead, it announced that it had managed to enrich uranium to 3.5 per cent, enough for use in power generation but well short of the 80 per cent-plus enrichment needed to produce nuclear weapons.

Estimates of how long it might take to develop a nuclear weapons capacity range from less than two years to 10 or more.

The IAEA will produce a report this month on Iran's response to its demands for measures to show that the nuclear program, which it hid from international inspection for 18 years, was not intended for weapons production.

US President George Bush has insisted that Iran should be denied the technology to produce enriched uranium. He dismissed reports that the US had a contingency plan to destroy Iranian facilities with bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons.


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