KUWAIT — Iran has successfully enriched uranium for the first time, a landmark in its quest to develop nuclear fuel, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday. Although the president insisted his country does not aim to develop nuclear weapons, the statements seemed certain to ratchet up tensions with the West, which is trying to persuade Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
Speaking in a nationally televised speech, Ahmadinejad called on the West “not to cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians” by trying to force Iran to abandon uranium enrichment.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld refused to engage in “fantasy land” speculation about a possible U.S. attack on Iran, though he said the Bush administration is concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
“The United States of America is on a diplomatic track,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld declined to comment on Iran’s claim that it has has successfully enriched uranium for the first time.
“I’d rather wait and see what our experts say about it,” the defense secretary told reporters.
White House assails 'wrong direction'
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tehran was “moving in the wrong direction” and if it persists, the United States will discuss possible next steps with the U.N. Security Council.
The Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment activity by April 28. Iran has rejected the demand, saying it has a right to develop the process. The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is due in Iran this week for talks to try to resolve the standoff.
“At this historic moment, with the blessings of God Almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants Sunday,” Ahmadinejad said.
“I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries,” he told an audience that included top military commanders and clerics in the northwestern holy city of Mashhad. The crowd broke into cheers of “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” Some stood and thrust their fists in the air.
West must respect 'Iran's right'
Ahmadinejad said the West “has to respect Iran’s right for nuclear energy.”
Iran “relies on the sublime beliefs that lie within the Iranian and Islamic culture. Our nation does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals,” he said.
He said Iran wanted to operate its nuclear program under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency and within its rights and the regulations the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The announcement does not mean Iran is immediately capable of producing enough fuel to run a reactor or develop the material needed for a nuclear warhead. Uranium enrichment can produce either, but it must be carried out on a much larger scale, using thousands of centrifuges.
Iran succeeded in enriching uranium to a level needed for fuel on a research scale — using 164 centrifuges, officials said. But the breakthrough underlined how difficult it will be for the West to convince Iran to give up enrichment.
Ahmadinejad made the announcement in a richly appointed hall in one of Iran’s holiest cities in a ceremony clearly aimed at proclaiming to the Iranian public their country’s nuclear success.
Speaking before the president, Iran’s nuclear chief — Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh — told the audience that Iran has produced 110 tons of uranium gas, the feedstock that is pumped into centrifuges for enrichment.
The amount is nearly twice the 60 tons of uranium hexaflouride, or UF-6, gas that Iran said last year that it had produced. In theory, it would be enough to produce about 10 nuclear warheads.
Aghazadeh said Iran plans to expand its enrichment program to be able to use 3,000 centrifuges by the end of the year.
The United States and some in Europe accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, an accusation Tehran denies, saying it intends only to generate electricity.
The IAEA is due to report to the U.N. Security Council on April 28 whether Iran has met its demand for a full halt to uranium enrichment. If Tehran has not complied, the council will consider the next step. The U.S. and Europe are pressing for sanctions against Iran, a step Russia and China have so far opposed.
White House: Clock is ticking
McClellan told reporters traveling on Air Force One with President Bush that Iran’s enrichment claims “only further isolate” Tehran and underscore why the international community must continue to raise concerns about its suspected ambition to develop nuclear weapons.
McClellan noted the Security Council clock now running on Iran.
“This is a regime that needs to be building confidence with the international community,” he said. “Instead, they’re moving in the wrong direction.”
The reported breakthrough came only two months after Iran resumed research on enrichment at its facility in the central town of Natanz in February. The resumption of work there prompted ElBaradei’s IAEA to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council — escalating the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In London, a spokesman for the British Foreign Office recalled that Iran was under Security Council orders to “resume full and sustained suspension of all its enrichment.”
“The latest Iranian statement is not particularly helpful,” the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.
In Vienna, officials of the IAEA, whose inspectors are now in Iran, declined to comment on the announcement. But a diplomat familiar with Tehran’s enrichment program said it appeared to be accurate. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss information restricted to the agency.
The enrichment process is one of the most difficult steps in developing a nuclear program. It requires a complicated plumbing network of pipes connecting centrifuges that can operate flawless for months or years.
The process aims to produce a gas high with an increased percentage of uranium-235, the isotope needed for nuclear fission, which is much rarer than the more prevalent isotope uranium 238.
A gas made from raw uranium is pumped into a centrifuge, which spins, causing a small portion of the heavier uranium-238 to drop away. The gas then proceeds to the next centrifuge, where the process is repeated. Then it goes to another, and another, and another, in a chain that can involve thousands of centrifuges and gradually increases the proportion of uranium-235.
The enrichment process can take years to produce a gas rich enough in uranium-235 that it can be used to power a nuclear reactor or produce a bomb. Enrichment typically starts out with a gas that is 0.7 percent uranium-235, and boosts it to either 4 percent for power generation or to 90 percent for weaponry.
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