Iran set a one-month deadline Saturday for the West to accept its counterproposal to a U.N.-drafted nuclear plan and warned that otherwise it will produce reactor fuel at a higher level of enrichment on its own.
The warning was a show of defiance and a hardening of Iran's stance over its nuclear program, which the West fears masks an effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran insists its program is only for peaceful purposes, such as electricity production, and says it has no intention of making a bomb.
"We have given them an ultimatum. There is one month left and that is by the end of January," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, speaking on state television.
Even if Tehran started working on the fuel production immediately, it would likely take years before it could master the technology to turn uranium enriched to the level of 20 percent into the fuel rods it needs for a medical research reactor.
Still, any threat to enrich uranium to a higher level is likely to rattle the world powers that have been trying to persuade Iran to forgo enrichment altogether.
West’s demands: Accept our plan
Enrichment is at the center of the West's concerns because at high levels it can be used in making nuclear weapons. At lower levels, enriched uranium is used in the production of fuel for nuclear power plants.
Iran dismissed an end-of-2009 deadline imposed by the Obama administration and its international partners to accept a U.N.-drafted deal to swap most of its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. The deal would reduce Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium, limiting — at least for the moment — its capability to make nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and its allies have demanded Iran accept the terms of the U.N.-brokered plan without changes.
Instead, Tehran came up with a counterproposal: to have the West either sell nuclear fuel to Iran, or swap its nuclear fuel for Iran's enriched uranium in smaller batches instead of at once as the U.N. plan requires.
This is unacceptable to the West because it would leave Tehran with enough enriched material to make nuclear arms.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, refused to comment Saturday on Iran's announcement of a one-month deadline.
Exporting its stockpile
A U.S. official said Iran "is standing in its own way" by issuing the deadline.
"The IAEA has a balanced proposal on the table that would fulfill Iran's own request for fuel and has the backing of the international community," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "If getting access to fuel is Iran's objective, then there is absolutely no reason why the existing proposal — which Iran accepted in principle at Geneva — is insufficient. The Iranian government is standing in its own way."
The West says Tehran initially accepted the deal in principle at a meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1. Iran denies that.
Under the plan, Iran would export most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for further enrichment in Russia and France, where it would be converted into fuel rods. The rods, which Iran needs for the research reactor in Tehran, would be returned to the country about a year later.
Exporting the uranium would temporarily leave Iran without enough of a stockpile to further enrich the uranium into material for a nuclear warhead, and the rods that are returned cannot be processed further for use in making weapons.
"They (the West) must decide on supplying fuel for the Tehran reactor on one of the two offers — purchase or swap," Mottaki said. "Otherwise, the Islamic Republic of Iran will produce the 20 percent enriched fuel with its own capable experts."
Very low level of enrichment
Iran currently has one operating enrichment facility that churns out enriched uranium at a level of 3.5 percent. The country needs fuel enriched to 20 percent to power the Tehran medical research reactor. For nuclear weapons, uranium needs to be enriched to 90 percent or more.
The U.N. has demanded Iran suspend all enrichment, a demand Tehran refuses to meet, saying it has a right to develop the technology under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran has also defiantly announced it intends to build 10 new uranium enrichment sites, drawing a forceful rebuke from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and warnings of the possibility of new U.N. sanctions.