Iran Says It Can Enrich Uranium on a Large Scale
NATANZ, Iran, April 9 — Iran said Monday that it was now capable of industrial-scale uranium enrichment, a development that would defy two United Nations resolutions passed to press the country to suspend its enrichment program.
The announcement was greeted with skepticism by Western diplomats and nuclear experts, who said the declaration seemed to have more to do with political showmanship than technical progress. While reporters were invited to the country’s main nuclear complex at Natanz, they were not shown any evidence that enrichment of uranium, the step needed to make reactor fuel or bomb fuel, was under way.
In a speech on Monday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that if the West did not end its pressure against Iran to halt the production of uranium, Iran would review its policy of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitoring entity.
It was unclear whether that was a threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as North Korea did four years ago, but Mr. Ahmadinejad said the West “should know that the Iranian nation will defend its rights and that this path is irreversible.”
“With great pride, I announce as of today our dear country is among the countries of the world that produces nuclear fuel on an industrial scale,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told government officials, diplomats, and foreign and local journalists at the Natanz site. “This nuclear fuel is definitely for the development of Iran and expansion of peace in the world.”
The government had decreed April 9 a national nuclear technology day. Monday was the first anniversary of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran had produced enriched uranium at a pilot plant.
The spokesman for the National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, told reporters traveling with President Bush that the administration was “very concerned” about Iran’s declaration, adding, “Iran’s decision to limit even further its cooperation with the I.A.E.A. is unacceptable.” But the administration has carefully avoided making specific threats about how it might respond, other than to press for tightening sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.
The Council unanimously passed a resolution on March 24 to expand sanctions on Iran in an effort to curb its nuclear program. The resolution barred all arms exports and froze some of the financial assets of 28 Iranians linked to the country’s military and nuclear programs.
The United States and some European governments have accused Iran of having a clandestine weapons program, but Iran contends that its program is peaceful, for energy purposes, and that it wants to produce fuel for its reactors.
Talks between Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, resumed last week after Iran released 15 British sailors and marines who, Iranian officials contended, had strayed into Iranian waters. Mr. Solana negotiates on behalf of the permanent members of the Security Council — Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States — plus Germany.
Iran’s sprawling facility in the desert at Natanz has a small pilot plant where for more than a year engineers have periodically shot uranium gas into scores of spinning centrifuges in an experimental effort to master enrichment, a complex kind of purification process. Uranium enriched to low levels can fuel reactors; if enriched to high levels, it can fuel nuclear weapons.
Introducing uranium gas into centrifuges at the pilot plant would be nothing new. Injecting it into the larger facility under construction at the site, the one intended for “industrial production,” would be a step forward. Nuclear experts said it was unclear what Mr. Larijani was referring to when he said Monday, “Yes, we have injected gas.”
The large industrial plant under construction at Natanz is roughly half the size of the Pentagon. Inspectors say Iran is constructing 3,000 centrifuges as a first step toward 54,000.
A senior European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because diplomatic negotiations were under way, said he doubted that Iran had crossed the line and begun enriching uranium at the larger plant because Iranian and European negotiators were seriously discussing potential ways to resolve Iran’s standoff with the Security Council.
“I would be surprised if they fed the centrifuges because it would jeopardize the talks,” the diplomat said. “There are proposals out there that are quite serious.”
The diplomat, who follows the nuclear agency’s work, added that none of its inspectors were currently at Natanz but that they were on their way. He said their assessment would clarify what, if anything, the Iranians had actually achieved.
Frustrated Western experts have said for months that the underlying question is whether the frenetic activity at the desert complex is real, a bluff or a little of both. The issue, they say, is whether Iran has really mastered the centrifuge basics or is involved in a political show to strengthen its bargaining position in the global standoff.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former United Nations weapons inspector, also said Iran for the moment seemed more interested in scoring diplomatic points than in making technical advances.
“Ahmadinejad is trying to demonstrate facts on the ground and negotiate from a stronger position,” he said. “If they enriched today” in the cavernous industrial plant, “it would destroy the ability to go forward on any negotiation.”
Mr. Albright said such enrichment “would escalate the confrontation,” adding, “It raises all kinds of worst-case scenarios that, if not managed correctly, could escalate up to a military action.”
It was unclear how seriously to take Iran’s threat to reduce further its cooperation with inspectors. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on state matters, issued a forceful warning last month after the Security Council resolution was passed, saying Iran would strike back against any threats or violence.
“Until today, what we have done has been in accordance with the international regulations,” he said in a nationwide address observing the first day of the Persian New Year on March 21. “But if they take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so.”
Ayatollah Khamenei said the nuclear program was more important than the nationalization of oil in 1958, a source of great pride for most Iranians.
“If they want to treat us with threats and use force or violence, the Iranian nation will undoubtedly use all its capabilities to strike the invading enemies,” he added.
William J. Broad and David E. Sanger contributed reporting from New York.