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Iran Orders Boost in Uranium Enrichment

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Iran says it needs uranium enriched to 20 percent to fuel a medical research reactor

Iran says it has informed the U.N. nuclear agency it plans to further enrich its uranium in defiance of international demands that it stop. Iran's processing program would likely need reconfiguring first, prompting speculation the announcement may have more to do with nuclear negotiations with the West than imminent enrichment.

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency says he gave the U.N. watchdog notice of Tehran's plans Monday, in an apparent formal rejection of a U.N. plan to have the uranium enriched abroad.

The move follows an announcement by Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, that Iran will enrich some of its current stockpile to 20 percent, starting Tuesday.

Speaking to Iran's Arabic al-Alam television, Salehi said Iran would start the process in the presence of inspectors and observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had ordered the further enrichment in a televised address, one of the many varying, unofficial responses Iranian officials have given to the U.N. plan.

The IAEA wants Iran to send most of its uranium stockpile to Russia and France to boost it to 20 percent and turn it into fuel rods. Such rods would be very difficult to enrich even more, for example to the 90 percent needed to make nuclear weapons.

If Iran can manage to push the uranium to 20 percent on its own, and it is not clear that it can, Western scientists say it could also likely enrich it to weapons grade.

Iran denies its nuclear program has a military component, and says the enrichment is for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes. It worries it would not get the uranium back if it sends it overseas.

Nuclear chief Salehi said Iran would readily stop the enrichment if the West were to give it the fuel.

Salehi told al-Alam the offer is still open and that once Iran receives the fuel, it will stop the enrichment.

Western countries, in particular the United States, say the original deal was not meant to be modified and are pushing for further U.N. sanctions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there is still time for sanctions to work.

Meanwhile, with tensions over the standoff rising, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said Iran has begun production of two types of unmanned aircraft with surveillance and attack capabilities.

Vahidi said the drones can carry out assaults with high precision.

Iranian Air Force commander Hesmatollah Kassiri was quoted as saying Iran is working on a new air-defense system. The commander said Russia has been slow to deliver its S-300 missiles as agreed, but Iran's domestically-built system will be as powerful or even stronger.

Iran frequently announces major advances in its military, nuclear and space programs. The latest advances have not been independently confirmed.