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February 14, 2012

US Downplays Iran Announcement of Nuclear Advances

by Scott Stearns

The Obama administration is downplaying Wednesday's announcements by Iran that it has a new generation of centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment and that it is producing nuclear fuel rods.  Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.  The United States says Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian state television broadcast images of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad watching what it said were 20 percent enriched uranium fuel rods being loaded into an aging reactor that produces nuclear isotopes.

Iran says the domestic production of fuel rods and new carbon fiber centrifuges are major advances in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, despite U.N. sanction aimed at stopping the process.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the fuel rods appear to be intended for the Tehran Research Reactor, which remains under the safeguard of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.  She said that Wednesday's announcements in Tehran “were not terribly impressive.”

"This is not big news.  In fact, it seems to have been hyped.  The Iranians have for many months been putting out calendars of accomplishments.  And based on their own calendars, they are many, many months behind.  This [announcement] strikes us as calibrated mostly for a domestic audience," she said.

The United States and the European Union are trying to close markets for Iranian oil to deprive Tehran of revenue.  With the value of the country's currency falling, Nuland said Iran's leaders might be trying to highlight marginal accomplishments to boost domestic public opinion of the government. "Iran is clearly feeling the pressure of its international and diplomatic isolation, of the increasing economic pressure on it, unprecedented sanctions that are growing," she said.

Asked whether Washington is downplaying these events to defuse Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program, Nuland said “countries that follow the Iranian nuclear program carefully know precisely what this was and what this wasn't.”

The European Union on Wednesday said it has received Iran's reply to a letter sent nearly four months ago proposing a return to talks on its disputed nuclear program with Russia, China, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany.  Nuland said those countries are studying the response.  She did not say what the letter said.