TEHRAN, Feb 7: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday ordered Iran’s atomic chief to begin higher uranium enrichment, raising the stakes in a dispute with the West days after seeming to accept a UN-drafted nuclear deal.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s declaration drew immediate fire from Britain, which said it was ”clearly a matter of serious concern”, while US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called for mounting “international pressure” on the Islamic republic.
In a speech at an exhibition on laser technology broadcast live on state television, President Ahmadinejad blamed world powers for the stalemate over the nuclear fuel deal, but left the door open for possible negotiation over the proposal.
“I had said let us give them (world powers) two to three months and if they don’t agree, we would start ourselves,” he said.
“Now Dr (Ali Akbar) Salehi, start to make the 20 per cent with the centrifuges,” the hardliner told Iran’s atomic chief, who was in the audience, referring to high-enriched uranium required as fuel to power a Tehran reactor.
Britain said that if Iran ploughed ahead with higher uranium enrichment, it would be in breach of five United Nations Security Council resolutions. “Reports that Iran is planning to enrich some of their fuel to 20 per cent level of enrichment are clearly a matter of serious concern,” a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry said in a statement issued in London.
Mr Gates, meanwhile, called on the international community to stand united against Iran. “The international community has offered the Iranian government multiple opportunities to provide reassurance of its intentions. The results have been very disappointing,” he said after meeting his Italian counterpart Ignazio La Russa in Rome.
“If the international community will stand together and bring pressure on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work. But we must all work together.”
Analysts called Mr Ahmadinejad’s comments an attempt to pressure Washington and drive a wedge between the six world powers, some of whom are still hesitant to back fresh sanctions against Tehran.
“Ahmadinejad wants to put pressure on the West, especially the US. He was responding to those in the West who do not want Iran to strike a deal,” Iranian analyst Mohammad Saleh Sadeghian said.
“I think that Iran prefers a swap deal over the option of producing the fuel” of 20 per cent enriched uranium itself, he added.
A Western analyst who asked not to be named said Iranian declarations such as the one on Sunday were attempts to “delay potential sanctions by dividing the six world powers without backing down on the nuclear programme”.
Tehran and world powers are locked in a stalemate over the UN-drafted deal, which envisages the Iran’s 3.5 per cent LEU being sent to Russia and France for enrichment to 20 per cent and then returned as fuel for the Tehran reactor.
President Ahmadinejad insisted that world powers “unconditionally” accept exchanging Iran’s LEU for high purity 20 per cent enriched uranium to be used as nuclear fuel for the Tehran reactor, which makes medical isotopes.
His statement comes after he indicated in an interview on state television last Tuesday that Iran was ready to send its LEU abroad for conversion into 20 per cent nuclear fuel.—AFP