President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched anniversary celebrations Thursday for Iran's Islamic Revolution with a defiant promise to push ahead with the country's controversial nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad suggested Tehran would announce next week that it is beginning to install a new assembly of 3,000 centrifuges in an underground portion of its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz that the U.S. has warned could bring further sanctions against the country.
The Iranian leader said his government is determined to continue with its nuclear program, despite U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel to generate electricity or for the fissile core of an atomic bomb.
Kicking off 10 days of celebrations to mark the 28th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought hard-line clerics to power, Ahmadinejad said Iran will celebrate next week "the stabilization and the establishment of its full right" to enrich uranium at the facility.
The chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said last week that he expected Iran to announce "they are going to build up their 3,000 centrifuge facility" in February. There had been speculation the announcement could come during the revolution anniversary.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Iran would face "universal international opposition" over the step. "If they think they can get away with 3,000 centrifuges without another Security Council resolution and additional international pressure, then they are very badly mistaken," Burns said last week
The installation would be a major jump in Iran's uranium enrichment program, though it could take months to set up the 3,000 centrifuges and get them working. In the process, uranium gas is spun at supersonic speeds in a connected array of centrifuges to purify it. Uranium enriched to around 5 percent is used for fuel for a nuclear reactor; enriched to 95 percent, it can be used to build a warhead.
Iran now has two cascades of 164 centrifuges each. Tens of thousands are needed for a continuous program. The status of the new centrifuges has been unclear as Iranian officials gave contradictory statements over the past month. Tehran originally said last year that the installation would begin by the end of 2006, but January came and there was no word the work had started.
On Sunday, an Iranian lawmaker said installation had begun, but he was quickly contradicted by officials from the country's Atomic Energy Organization. Mohammad Saeedi, the agency's deputy head, said, "If we begin to install centrifuges, we will publicly announce it."
Ahmadinejad's remarks Thursday signaled that Iran would begin the installation before Feb. 11 — the final day of nationwide celebrations in memory of the Islamic revolution. He has also called people to the streets that day to show support for the nuclear program.
"Enemies of the Iranian nation ... must know that their wrongful beliefs will be revealed once again during Feb. 11 rallies by the great Iranian nation," he said, according to the state-run news agency.
The United States and many Western countries accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. The Security Council has threatened to impose further sanctions on Iran if it continues to refuse to roll back its program.
Iran insists its program is peaceful. It ultimately plans to expand it to 54,000 centrifuges, a large operation enriching more uranium within a shorter period of time.
So far, its two linked chains of 164 machines have been operating sporadically at the above-ground portion of the Natanz facility, producing small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors say.
Two smaller assemblies underground have been "dry testing" — without gas — since November, they say.
Iranian officials have turned down a request from IAEA inspectors to install cameras in the underground Natanz facility, a U.N. official familiar with Iran's nuclear dossier said in Vienna.
Ahmadinejad, whose hard-line tactics have faced criticism from both reformists and conservatives at home, also hinted Thursday that key decisions in Iran are made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not him.
"The general policies of the system are made by the Exalted Supreme Leader, and the government is required to carry them out," the state news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "The president, as the head of the country's executive body, pursues and announces the nuclear position."