- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

TEHRAN — Iran’s president said yesterday that his country “has joined the club of nuclear countries” by successfully enriching uranium for the first time — a key process in what Iran maintains is a peaceful energy program.

The announcement from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was certain to heighten international tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all enrichment by April 28 because of suspicions the program is designed to make nuclear weapons.

The White House, which is pressing for U.N. sanctions against Iran, said the enrichment claims “show that Iran is moving in the wrong direction.”

“Defiant statements and actions only further isolate the regime from the rest of the world,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad warned the West that trying to force it to abandon uranium enrichment would “cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians.”

He announced the breakthrough at a nationally televised ceremony clearly aimed at drumming up domestic support for the nuclear program, addressing an audience that included top military commanders and clerics in an ornate hall in one of Iran’s holiest cities, Mashhad. Before he spoke, screens on the stage showed footage of nuclear facilities and scientists at work.

“At this historic moment, with the blessings of God Almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants Sunday,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.

“I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries,” he said. The crowd broke into cheers of “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

As part of the ceremony, costumed dancers performed on the stage, holding aloft vials of raw uranium and chanting “Allahu akbar.”

Uranium enrichment can produce either fuel for a nuclear energy reactor — which Iran says it seeks — or the material needed for an atomic warhead.

Yesterday’s announcement does not mean Iran is immediately capable of doing either. So far it has succeeded only in getting a series of 164 centrifuges to work in the enrichment process; thousands of centrifuges are needed for a workable program. Most estimates say Iran is still years away from having enough fuel for a bomb.

But successfully carrying out the highly complicated and delicate process even on a small scale would represent a breakthrough, and Iran’s nuclear chief said the program would be expanded to 3,000 centrifuges by the end of the year.

The timing of yesterday’s announcement suggested Iran wanted to present a fait accompli to the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who arrives in Iran today for talks aimed at resolving the standoff with the West.

Mr. ElBaradei’s agency is scheduled to report to the U.N. Security Council on April 28 on whether Iran has met the council’s demand for a full halt to uranium enrichment. If Tehran fails to comply, the United States and Europe are pressing for sanctions against Iran, a step Russia and China have opposed.

China yesterday urged a diplomatic solution to the Iranian question.

“We still believe that negotiations and a diplomatic solution are the best way out of it,” Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York in comments carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

It was not immediately clear if Mr. Wang, who is also the current president of the Security Council, was speaking in direct reaction to Iran’s announcement.

Meanwhile, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful member of Iran’s ruling clerical regime, said yesterday’s nuclear announcement means Mr. ElBaradei “faces new circumstances.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran wanted to operate its nuclear program under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and within its rights and the regulations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He said the West “has to respect Iran’s right for nuclear energy.”

In Vienna, officials of the IAEA, whose inspectors are now in Iran, declined to comment on the announcement.

But a diplomat familiar with Tehran’s enrichment program said it appeared to be accurate. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss information restricted to the agency.

Speaking before the president, Iran’s nuclear chief — Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh — told the audience that Iran has produced 110 tons of uranium gas, the feedstock that is pumped into centrifuges for enrichment.

The amount is nearly twice the 60 tons that Iran said last year that it had produced — an amount that former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright said would be enough to produce up to 20 nuclear bombs if Iran developed the capacity.

Mr. Aghazadeh also said a heavy water nuclear reactor, under construction near Arak in central Iran, will be completed by early 2009. The U.S. fears that the spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor can be reprocessed to extract plutonium for use in a bomb.

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