Iran orders higher enrichment of uranium

TEHRAN: Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered his country's atomic agency on Sunday to begin the production of higher enriched uranium, a move that's likely to deepen international skepticism about the country's real intentions on the crucial issue of enriched uranium.

Ahmadinejad's latest pronouncement on the issue of enriched uranium coincided with a call Sunday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the international community to rally together to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear program.

Speaking to reporters during a weeklong European tour, Gates said that "if the international community will stand together and bring pressure" on Iran, "I believe there is still time for sanctions to work."

He declined to be specific about the type of sanctions he had in mind, but explained that the focus should be on putting pressure on the government in Tehran and not hurting the people.

In comments broadcast on state television, Ahmadinejad said: "God willing, 20 percent enrichment will start" to meet Iran's needs. He did not give a date for the start of the enrichment process.

He was speaking at a meeting attended by the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi.

Turning to Salehi, Ahmadinejad said: "Mr. Salehi, begin production of 20 percent" enriched uranium.

Producing enriched uranium is the international community's core concern over Iran's disputed nuclear program since it can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

Iran and the West have been discussing a U.N. plan under which Iran would export its low-enriched uranium for enrichment abroad. The plan, which comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency, was first drawn up in early October in a meeting in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers. It was refined later that month in Vienna talks among Iran, the U.S., Russia and France.

The Vienna talks came up with a draft proposal that would take 70 percent of Iran's low-enriched uranium to reduce its stockpile of material that could be enriched to a higher level, and possibly be used to make nuclear weapons. That uranium would be returned about a year later as refined fuel rods, which can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material.

In what was interpreted to be a possible shift of policy on a major issue, Ahmadinejad said last week he was ready to export his country's low-enriched uranium for higher enrichment abroad, saying Iran had "no problem" with the plan. Sunday's comments, however, appeared to justify the skepticism with which his Tuesday's comments were met by world leaders.

Salehi, the head of the Iranian atomic energy agency, later appeared to play down the significance of Ahmadinejad's comments. He told the official IRNA news agency the president was giving a "preparedness order" so Iran would be ready to enrich its uranium if the exchange with the West fails to take place.

He said the higher enrichment would be carried out in facilities in the central Iranian town of Natanz.

Ahmadinejad on Sunday made no mention of his own announcement on the issue last week, saying only that Iran remained ready to have "interaction" with the West over providing fuel to Iran "without condition."

But a foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said Sunday that 20 percent uranium enrichment for use by Tehran's research reactor was within the country's right as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. The uranium enrichment will be carried out under IAEA supervision, he said.

The enrichment, he added, would not affect Iran's readiness to swap its low enriched uranium for higher enriched one. He did not elaborate, but Iran has in the past said it would only embark on high uranium enrichment if the West refuses to provide the fuel to Iran.

On Sunday, Ahmadinejad said Iran has acquired laser technology for enrichment of uranium, but added, "For now, we do not intend to use it." He did not say why.

Iran is currently enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent for its under-construction nuclear power plant, using centrifuge machines. Its first nuclear power plant, built with Russia's help, will be operational later this year.

Iran's ambivalence over the enrichment issue comes at a time when the United States and its Western allies have been pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions to be slapped on Iran over its disputed nuclear program. But with Russia, and especially China, skeptical of any new U.N. penalties, they have to tread carefully to maintain six power unity on how to deal with the Islamic Republic.

International concerns include Iran's refusal to heed U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze its enrichment program; fears that it may be hiding more nuclear facilities after its belated revelations that it was building a secret fortified enrichment plant, and its stonewalling of an IAEA probe of alleged programs geared to developing nuclear arms.