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Questions in Iran about NPT, as nuclear program set to expand

Iran says the 10 new nuclear sites are for energy, not weapons, but sent mixed messages on whether it will remain in a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2009

Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko (l.) and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, attend a news conference after visiting the Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr, Iran, Monday.

Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA/REUTERS

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Istanbul, Turkey

One day after announcing plans for 10 new nuclear sites, Iran is sending mixed messages about its membership in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

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Iran insists that the new facilities, which would increase Iran's capacity for enriching uranium more than 50-fold, are for purely peaceful purposes. But any degree of withdrawal from the NPT would curtail UN inspections or safeguards and boost Western concerns that Iran is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon – a claim Tehran has always denied.

"Our spiritual leader says that to obtain nuclear weapons is a sin – if we wanted to obtain nuclear weapons we would leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told Reuters. "We do not want to leave the NPT."

That came just hours after Iran's speaker of parliament and former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, seemed to cast doubt on sticking with the NPT, after Iran was censured by the UN watchdog agency last week.

"I believe that [Western] moves are harming the NPT most ... now whether you are a member of the NPT or pull out of it has no difference," Larijani told a press conference.

Such sentiments were also underscored by Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, who argued in Monday's edition for Iran to leave the NPT.

"After seven years of hasty behavior by the agency and [world powers], isn't it time for Iran to pull out of the NPT?" wrote Shariatmadari, an official representative of Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. "This is a serious question and needs a logical answer."

500,000 new centrifuges

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet said on Sunday that work would begin immediately on five of the 10 sites, which together would house more than half a million centrifuges – a dramatic increase from the 8,700 now in operation, and one that experts say is unrealistic given Iran's demonstrated capabilities.

"I think there are serious technical questions about Iran's capacity to carry out this threat," says Natalie Goldring, a nonproliferation expert at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies in Washington.

The hurdles have prompted analysts to interpret the move as diplomatic bluster. Iran itself emphasized that the decision to expand was a direct response to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s resolution on Friday that censured Iran over its nuclear activities.

Tehran's planned enrichment expansion, which would violate current United Nations Security Council resolutions against Iran, brought a chorus of criticism from Washington and other Western capitals. Last week, outgoing IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that efforts to clear up outstanding issues with Iran had reached a "dead end."

"This is an act of bullying," said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, referring to the resolution. "Such measures will destroy the very foundation of the UN Security Council and the IAEA."

Iran has stated repeatedly that it will stay within the NPT – which legally permits uranium enrichment for nuclear energy – but complains that it has been singled out for scrutiny for past failures to declare all its programs, while nuclear-weapon nations such as Israel, Pakistan, and India are not members of the IAEA and have no international oversight.

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