Iran hailed its advanced nuclear capabilities Wednesday by unveiling what it says are a new generation of centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment and its first domestically produced fuel rods.
The semi-official Fars news agency reported Wednesday that the new carbon fiber centrifuges have been installed and operated at a uranium enrichment plant in the central desert city of Natanz.
Also Wednesday, Iranian state television broadcast live images of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overseeing the loading of what it said are 20 percent enriched uranium fuel rods into an aging Tehran reactor. The 43-year-old plant produces nuclear isotopes for treating cancer patients and is expected to soon run out of imported fuel stocks.
Iranian state media also reported that Ahmadinejad was set to formally declare the Fordo enrichment site - an underground complex built inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom - to be "fully operational."
Iran touted the advancements as steps in the country's efforts to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, despite Western penalties and U.N. sanctions aimed at stopping the process. A number of countries suspect Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Israel and the United States have said that all options are open to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said in January that the centrifuges at Fordo and the main Natanz facility are enriching uranium up to 20 percent - inadequate for a nuclear weapon, but enough to power up the Tehran medical research reactor. It is, however, far easier to make bomb-grade fuel from 20 percent purity than from lesser concentrations.
Iran says it wants to secure parts of its enrichment activities at Fordo in order for its nuclear program to survive a hostile military airstrike.
Russia's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that a nuclear-armed Iran is "not an option for Russia," voicing concern at progress made by Tehran in its nuclear drive.
Also Wednesday, the European Union said it had received Iran's reply to a letter sent nearly four months ago by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton proposing a return to talks with major powers to discuss its disputed nuclear program.
The last talks between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany (the so-called P5+1 group) took place in Istanbul a year ago and produced no results.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report in November citing evidence of Iranian efforts to design a nuclear weapon in violation of international sanctions and agreements. Iran says the report was based on fabrications.
A team from the IAEA is scheduled to make a two-day visit to Iran early next week. The agency's chief inspector said experts had "intensive discussions" with Iran about its nuclear aims during a trip in late January, and that both sides had "a lot of work to do."
In a separate development, Iran's oil ministry said Tehran will not cut crude exports to six European Union countries "at the moment" after state media reported it was looking into doing so. The cutoff, as originally announced, would have affected the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Portugal.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.