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Iran announced plans Sunday to escalate its nuclear program and begin enriching uranium to 20 percent, starting Tuesday. Iranian officials also said that 10 new enrichment facilities would be constructed within the next year.
Although 90 percent enriched uranium is required to make a nuclear bomb, the move has heightened concerns among western diplomats that Iran may be getting closer to producing weapons-grade uranium. However, given the challenges of meeting these new goals, many Iran analysts say that these latest announcements are most likely posturing by the government to appear more powerful as it prepares to battle anti-government protesters later this week.
Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said his country will notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, about its plans in a letter on Monday. Iranian officials continue to insist that their nuclear program is peaceful. Mr. Salehi said it needs the 20 percent enriched uranium for Tehran’s research reactor to produce medical isotopes, reports Xinhua.
Iranian leaders say they will halt plans to increase uranium enrichment if they receive higher-grade fuel from abroad, reports Iran’s Press TV. Iran would also require amendments to an IAEA plan regarding Iran’s ability to receive enriched uranium from abroad.
"Earlier, we made it known that Iran has a preference to buy fuel for the Tehran research reactor from abroad. The results were very disappointing since they were not willing to cooperate with us in this area,” he pointed out. “The basis for the proposal was to open the door to cooperation rather than confrontation. We waited for more than seven months and today (Sunday), President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the AEOI to begin production of 20-percent [enriched] uranium that can be used to power the Tehran medical reactor,” he added.
Despite the bravado of Iran’s latest announcement, Al Jazeera reports that this next phase will be an achievement for Iran, but it will not “happen over night.” Presently, Iran enriches uranium to a level of 3.5 to 4 percent. Increasing enrichment levels to 20 percent will reduce Iran’s ability to enrich the lower-grade fuel. Additionally, Iranian scientists will have to change the capacity of 4,000 to 5,000 centrifuges.
The BBC’s Jon Leyne described Iran’s plans to have 10 new enrichment facilities operational within the next year as “almost laughably ambitious” given that it’s taken years bring the Natanz facility online and it still experiences problems. Rather than reflecting a major change in the country's nuclear capabilities, Mr. Leyne says the announcements are most likely Mr. Ahmadinejad politicking before antigovernment protests begin this Thursday on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic.
US officials used Iran’s announcement as an opportunity to call for the continued solidarity of the international community against Iran’s nuclear program. Speaking in Italy, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that there is still time for sanctions to work and military action will most likely be unnecessary, reports the Wall Street Journal.
“If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work,” Mr. Gates said following meetings with his Italian counterpart. “But we must all work together.”
The Associated Press