Nuclear fuel push raises alarm about Iran’s intentions

US, France say move warrants further sanctions

Envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said the UN nuclear watchdog agency can monitor the process of uranium enrichment. Envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said the UN nuclear watchdog agency can monitor the process of uranium enrichment.
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post / February 9, 2010

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TEHRAN - Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday that it will start producing higher-grade enriched uranium, prompting the United States and other nations to renew threats of carefully targeted sanctions.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the Vienna-based IAEA, handed over a letter informing the UN nuclear watchdog agency that his country today would start enriching uranium up to 20 percent, the Press TV, a state-run English-language news network, reported. The announcement was made a day after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the production.

The higher-grade uranium is significantly beyond the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, the ostensible reason to date for Iran’s uranium-enrichment program.

The program has already led to international sanctions against Iran, and the decision to produce higher-grade nuclear fuel appears likely to heighten suspicions by the United States and its allies that Tehran secretly plans to build nuclear weapons.

Iran says the higher-grade fuel is needed to power a 41-year-old, US-built research reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for medical purposes. The uranium enriched to 20 percent would be far below the grade needed to make material for a nuclear bomb.

In Paris, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Defense Minister Hervé Morin of France met yesterday to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program and said afterward that both countries would push for further sanctions.

“We must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue,’’ Gates 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.’’

France and the United States will seek to persuade the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions against Iran, Morin said at a joint news conference. “We’ll have no other choice.’’

A senior parliamentarian from Russia, which has opposed Western calls for new UN sanctions, suggested yesterday that the time had come for such action. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, told the Interfax news agency that the international community should “react to this step with serious measures, including making the regime of economic sanctions more severe.’’

The upgraded uranium will be produced at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, Press TV reported, adding that Iran “is entitled to enrich uranium for civilian purposes’’ as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Soltanieh said IAEA inspectors would be able to fully monitor the process, the Associated Press reported. He alleged that Iran’s move was forced by world powers, who he said had failed to respond to Tehran’s proposals on implementing a deal to swap some of the country’s low-enriched uranium for fuel for the research reactor.

“We cannot leave hospitals and patients desperately waiting for radio isotopes,’’ Soltanieh said in Vienna.

If Iran enriched all of its current stock of fuel, it would need only a small facility “to produce enough weapon-grade nuclear material in a breakout strategy aimed at getting enough for a weapon in about six months. Such a plant would be extremely hard [for inspectors] to find,’’ said David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.