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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Thursday that Iran had produced a higher grade of nuclear fuel, while protesters clashed with security forces as huge crowds gathered in Tehran for a showdown between the government and the opposition on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Mr. Ahmadinejad made his declaration that Iran had produced its “first stock” of the 20 percent enriched uranium to a crowd that had massed to celebrate the anniversary, also telling the crowd that Iran was now a “nuclear state,” reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Iran announced only Monday that it would begin enriching uranium to 20 percent, saying the nuclear fuel would be used for a medical reactor. Fuel for nuclear power plants is enriched only to a 3.5 percent purity level, while nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to 90 percent. According to The New York Times, experts say that once Iran was able to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level, it could “theoretically also move relatively quickly toward the manufacture of weapons-grade fuel.”
Tehran’s bold announcement comes as the US has prioritized putting new sanctions on Iran. While Russia appears newly open to the idea, China, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, has blocked that effort by voicing its opposition to sanctions on Iran.
But Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting UN sources, reports that China is now unlikely to use its veto power to block sanctions and a resolution tightening sanctions is likely to be approved. A Reuters analysis also suggests that China may be leaning toward bowing to Western pressure on sanctions, based on its recent silence on the matter.
About 1 kilometer from where Ahmadinejad spoke to government supporters Thursday, opposition protesters clashed with security forces. AFP reports that police and plainclothes security agents attacked the vehicles of opposition leaders Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, and that some of their relatives, as well as the granddaughter of Iran's revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were arrested. Police also fired teargas at protesters, the paper reported, based on accounts from an opposition website.
The Los Angeles Times quotes a news website reporting that security forces had fired on a crowd of protesters. Independent confirmation was difficult because foreign media were kept from the site of the protests.
After noon, a witness reported clashes along Enghelab Street east of Azadi Square, where security forces began arresting people.
Security forces on side streets were beating people, the witness said, with a dozen or so Basiji militiamen deployed at each intersection and uniformed security forces trying in vain to disperse crowds chanting, "Death to the dictator."
Clashes also broke out around Vali Asr Square, where a motorcycle was torched. Military helicopters hovered over the area.
The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that the anniversary rally would be a showdown that could shape the future of Iran. Opposition protesters have challenged Iran’s government since weeks of chaos last summer, when the government violently cracked down on those protesting the results of Iran’s presidential election, which they claim was marred by fraud.
“It’s going to be a big show of force, a big competition between the two sides over who can rule this day – and who can lay claim to the legacy of the revolution,” says Ahmad Sadri, an Iran specialist at Lake Forest College in Illinois.
At issue are fundamental questions that have been fought over in the streets, in the prisons, and from the pulpits of Iran for eight months. At stake is who are the true heirs of Iran's revolution and its first promises of “Independence, freedom, [and] Islamic Republic.”