West wants solidarity as Iran steps up nuclear programme

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday ordered Iran’s atomic energy organisation to begin enriching its uranium stockpile to a higher level, further raising fears over the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad was shown on Iranian television ordering the uranium, which is currently enriched to the level of 3,5%, to be further refined to 20% purity. State media said the work would start on Tuesday.

Iran said it needs the more concentrated fuel for a research reactor in Tehran which makes isotopes for medical uses. However, western officials pointed out that Iran does not possess the specialised technology for turning the enriched uranium into the fuel rods used in the Tehran reactor. They are concerned that by enriching uranium to the level of 20%, the Islamic republic would learn how to overcome many of the technical obstacles to making weapons-grade fuel.

The percentage measures of enrichment refer to the concentration of the most fissile isotope, U-235. A nuclear weapon small enough to put on a missile would require uranium enriched to over 90% U-235.

David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, said: “This is potentially very serious, but it depends how much they intend to enrich.” It would be much easier to get from 20% to 90% enrichment than it had been to get to 20%, he said. It would take just six months, using only a fraction of the centrifuges Iran has at its disposal.

Breakdown in negotiations
Last October, Iran agreed in principle to export the bulk of its uranium to have it enriched to 20% purity and then made into fuel rods in France, at the international community’s expense. However, the deal subsequently unravelled amid disagreements in Tehran.

Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said on Friday that the deal was close to being finalised. But the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said Mottaki had presented no new proposals at a meeting on Saturday in Munich. In his televised remarks, Ahmadinejad blamed western countries for the impasse.

“We had told them to come and have a swap, although we could produce the 20% enriched fuel ourselves,” he said, sitting alongside Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation.

“We gave them two to three months’ time for such a deal. They started a new game and now I ask Dr Salehi to start using the centrifuges for the production of 20% fuel.”

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, immediately called for international solidarity to force Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

Gates told reporters that “if the international community will stand together and bring pressure” on Iran, “I believe there is still time for sanctions to work,” he told reporters. However, China has so far opposed a new round of sanctions at the UN security council. — © Guardian News & Media

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