TEHRAN, Iran — Iran broke U.N. seals on its nuclear enrichment facility Tuesday, pledging only to conduct research, but the international nuclear watchdog said Tehran also planned small-scale enrichment of uranium — a process that can produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The move drew an immediate outcry from Europe and Japan as well as Washington as the reopening of the Natanz facility was seen as defiance of demands that Iran maintain a freeze on its nuclear program.
The Bush administration said Iran was nearing the point where U.N. Security Council action and international sanctions were inevitable.
“If the regime in Iran continues on the current course and fails to abide by its international obligations there is no other choice but to refer the matter to the Security Council,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Enriched uranium can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors in electricity generation or for nuclear bombs, depending on the level of processing.
In announcing it would reopen its Natanz enrichment center last week and as the seals were broken Tuesday, Tehran claimed enrichment was not planned.
“What we resume is merely in the field of research, not more than that,” the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Saeedi, said at a press conference.
“Production of nuclear fuel” — which would involve enrichment — “remains suspended,” he said.
Saeedi said the nature of the equipment unsealed was “a confidential issue between us and the IAEA.”
But the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement later Tuesday that uranium hexafluoride — a gaseous form of uranium — would “be fed into cascades” of centrifuges as part of Iran’s activities.
Uranium hexafluoride gas is spun in centrifuges to separate out fissile isotopes in the process of enrichment that can produce low-level nuclear fuel or weapons-grade material.
Germany: Tehran has 'crossed lines'
Iran claims its contentious nuclear program is for electricity generation, but Washington accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier questioned whether European-led negotiations had any future and said Iran had “crossed lines which it knew would not remain without consequences.” He said he had asked ElBaradei to quickly evaluate the dangers of Iran’s move.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to visit Washington later this week for her first meetings with President Bush, and Iran is expected to be an important topic with both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Britain warned the international community was “running out of patience,” and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Tehran had breached IAEA resolutions. “There was no good reason why Iran should have taken this step if its intentions are truly peaceful,” Straw said.
However, Britain does not envisage military action against Iran, by Britain or any other country, Straw said.
“Military action is not on our agenda, I don’t believe in practice it is on anyone else’s agenda,” Straw told parliament.
“This has to be resolved by diplomatic and other non-military means and that’s what is on our agenda at the moment.”
Japan said the decision was “a matter of deep regret” and the Foreign Ministry called on Iran “to immediately cease the resumption of the research and development activities.”
Iran’s decision to freeze some nuclear activities in October 2003 was voluntary, so the IAEA said it had no option but to remove the seals at Iran’s request.
Freeze falls apart
The move further erodes the suspension of nuclear activities that has been the centerpiece of Iran’s negotiations with the West since the freeze was put in place as a confidence-building measure.
In August, Iran removed seals at another nuclear plant outside the city of Isfahan and resumed uranium reprocessing — a step before enrichment in the nuclear fuel process.
That move prompted Europe to break off its negotiations temporarily. The talks that resumed in December made no progress but were to continue later this month.
French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday warned Iran it would commit a serious mistake if it ignored the international community.
Referring to the reluctance of Iran and North Korea to comply with the international community, Chirac said in a speech in Paris: "These countries would be making a serious mistake if they failed to grasp the hand we are extending to them."
"The battles we are waging against the new threats to global security and stability must be relentless," Chirac said. "I refer to terrorism that nothing whatsoever can justify, and to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which is fraught with the risk of irreparable damage."
Iran insists it has the right to develop the entire nuclear fuel cycle under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The Europeans have been pressing a compromise under which Iran would enrich uranium on Russian soil to safeguard against its diversion for weapons.
Iran says it will not accept proposal if it excludes enrichment in Iran as well. Russian has been deeply involved in Iran’s civilian nuclear program and is a longtime Tehran ally.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday his country was “expressing concern” over Iran’s resumption of research “in spite of the moratorium that was agreed between Iran and the European countries.”
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.