Iran has announced that it has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, leading the US and France to call for "strong" new UN sanctions against Tehran. Meanwhile, Russia -- Iran's long-term nuclear partner -- questioned Tehran's intentions.
AFP - Iran announced on Tuesday it has begun work to enrich uranium to 20 percent, dismissing warnings of new sanctions from world powers who suspect the sensitive nuclear project is aimed at making a bomb.
The announcement sent alarm bells ringing in the West, with the United States saying it added urgency to its efforts to clinch new sanctions against Tehran.
"From today we have started the 20 percent enrichment... in Natanz," Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi told the official IRNA news agency.
Experts say that once Iran enriches uranium to 20 percent, it can then proceed to the 93 percent needed to produce nuclear weapons since the technology is the same.
Russia, Iran's long-time nuclear partner, questioned its intentions.
"Iran's decision to start its own enrichment of uranium... heightens doubts on the sincerity of Iran's intentions to end the international community's existing concerns" over its nuclear programme, a foreign ministry statement said.
Iranian news in English
Earlier, news agencies quoted Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian national security council, as saying: "Iran claims it is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
"But actions such as starting to enrich low-enriched uranium up to 20 percent raise doubts in other countries and these doubts are fairly well-grounded."
In Paris, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, winding up a visit to France, said Washington is now aiming for a fresh UN sanctions resolution against Iran in "a matter of weeks, not months."
"(Gates) thinks that we need it and that we can do it in that time," Morrell added. "In all his meetings he discussed this sense of urgency."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the clamour, calling for immediate "crippling sanctions" against arch-foe Iran.
The UN nuclear watchdog said a team of its inspectors was in place to monitor the stepped-up enrichment work.
"I can confirm that officials are there in Natanz today," said a spokesman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "What they find and assess will be reported to the board."
Iran has conducted low-level enrichment of uranium in the central city of Natanz for several years, in defiance of three sets of UN sanctions.
Western powers suspect Tehran is enriching uranium to make atomic weapons as the material in highly purified form can be used in the fissile core of a nuclear bomb. Iran says its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes.
Salehi in his announcement said the project involved the use of 164 centrifuges, which rotate at supersonic speed to enrich uranium.
"This can make between three to five kilograms (6.5 to 11 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium per month for the Tehran reactor," he said of Iran's internationally supervised facility which produces medical isotopes.
Enrichment is the process to boost the percentage in uranium of the uranium-235 isotope, which splits in a chain reaction and releases energy.
The West is trying to convince Iran to sign on to an IAEA-brokered deal that envisages it being supplied with fuel for the Tehran reactor in exchange for its low-enriched uranium (LEU).
The deal has hit a roadblock as Tehran, despite saying it is ready "in principle" to agree, insists that not all its LEU be shipped out at once as world powers demand.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast on Tuesday left the door open for a deal, saying the stepped-up enrichment did not preclude a swap.
"If other countries or the IAEA meet our needs, maybe we can change our approach... The door is not closed yet. Any time they (world powers) are ready, this (fuel deal) can be done," he told reporters.
Salehi too reiterated on Tuesday that "Iran is ready for the unconditional exchange. If this deal takes place in time we are ready to stop this process (20 percent enrichment)."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meanwhile will visit Iran next week in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution. "The proposal is still valid... We believe there is still an important chance" for peace, he said in Ankara.
China also expressed hopes that the impasse can be resolved.
"We hope the relevant parties will exchange views on the draft deal on the Tehran research reactor and reach common ground at an early date which will help solve the issue," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in Beijing.
Date created : 2010-02-09