Iran's nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi says his country has produced its first batch of yellowcake uranium, the material used for enrichment. Salehi said the development "strengthens" Tehran's position in the next round of nuclear talks, set to start Monday in Geneva.
The announcement by Salehi on Iranian TV had a dramatic pitch and a gave what appeared to be a solid plug for the well-being of Iran's nuclear program. Iranian TV commentators also took pains to deny rumors of a set-back to the program due to damage from the Stuxnet computer virus.
Salehi described Iran's production of yellowcake uranium as a major achievement, stressing that Tehran would inform the International Atomic Energy Agency of the development.
He says that today, Iran has witnessed a new achievement with the first shipment of yellowcake uranium produced domestically in Iran. He says the yellowcake was shipped from the Gachin mine in Bandar Abbas to the Isfahan production facility, and the IAEA would be informed, because Iran, in his words, respects its international obligations.
But Iran's nuclear energy chief did not indicate the quantity of yellowcake produced by the Isfahan plant.
Salehi completed his melodramatic announcement by insisting that Iran has become self-sufficient in the nuclear fuel cycle, going from exploration to mining, to production of yellowcake, to the conversion into uranium hexofloride, and finally into fuel plates or pellets.
The Iranian announcement was made one day before a new round of talks is due to be held in Geneva with world powers over Tehran's nuclear program. Iran insists its program is intended solely for civilian purposes, but the West suspects it is trying to build nuclear weapons.
A senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mark Fitzpatrick, points out the announcement appears unusual because experts believe Iran already was able to produce yellowcake.
"The announcement is surprising because many outside analysts thought Iran had been producing its own yellowcake for at least two years, according to a December 2008 article by a well-respected expert," he said. "It seems we were wrong about that."
Fitzpatrick says Iran's production of yellowcake would be unlikely to meet the needs of its one nuclear plant.
"The announcement does not mean that Iran's nuclear program can be self-sufficient. The Gachin mine and mill are small-scale, designed to produce less yellowcake annually than is needed by one Bushehr-sized reactor. No other uranium mines are operating in Iran, although one with low-grade uranium has been under development for 15 years," he said. "To be self-sufficient in full fuel cycle, Iran will have to find a lot more good quality uranium ore. Otherwise they will have to continue to rely on imported uranium."
Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington argues Salehi's announcement appears to have little solid substance, adding that he believes it was intended for political purposes.
"The way he sort of formulated [the announcement] suggested to me that it is aimed as a political message, because he very swiftly turns around and makes the connection to the upcoming talks, which start [Monday] and he says 'We are not going to go to the table of negotiations from a position of weakness," said Vatanka.
Vatanka says Iran may be trying to play tough for its domestic audience, but be more willing to negotiate in private once in Geneva.