- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - Iran now controls the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel, the Iranian president said Saturday, highlighting his country’s growing capabilities at a time when the U.S. wants to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments came two days after the inauguration of a facility which produces uranium oxide fuel pellets for a planned heavy-water reactor _ the final step in the long, sophisticated nuclear fuel cycle.

“Today, with the grace of God, Iran is a country controlling the entire nuclear fuel cycle,” Ahmadinejad said on state television Saturday.

The step is significant toward furthering Iran’s nuclear energy capabilities and, an analyst said, could be designed to strengthen Iran’s position at a time when the Obama administration says it would negotiate with the Iran over it nuclear program.

However, it is less worrying for the West in terms of its potential to be used in nuclear weapons than Iran’s advanced enriched uranium program.

Spent fuel from heavy-water reactors can eventually be reprocessed to produce plutonium for a warhead, but that would still take many years whereas Iran is already believed to have enough enriched uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon should Iran decide to do so.

The U.S. and its allies have expressed concern over Iran’s developing nuclear program for fear it masks a weapons program. Tehran says its nuclear program is only designed to create peaceful energy.

Ahmadinejad has announced several times in the past that Iran has the knowledge necessary to produce its own fuel, but with the opening of the new facility near the central city of Isfahan, the Islamic republic says it now has the capability on a large scale.

Ahmadinejad’s comments come after U.S. administration officials said earlier this week that U.S. diplomats would attend group talks with Iran over its suspect nuclear program. That would be a major departure from President George W. Bush’s policy of isolation from a nation he once deemed to be evil.

Ahmadinejad said Thursday during the inauguration ceremony that his country is open to talks with the U.S. and other countries over its nuclear program. But he insisted the talks must be based on respect for Iran’s rights, suggesting the West should not try to force Tehran to stop uranium enrichment.

Ahmadinejad said Iran would present a new proposal for negotiations, saying “conditions have changed” _ an apparent reference to Obama’s election and Iran’s own progress in its nuclear program since talks held with Iran last year. He did not elaborate on the proposal.

Prominent Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz said the announcement about controlling the fuel cycle helps strengthen Iran’s bargaining position in future talks with the world powers by creating a new reality on the ground.

“By inaugurating the Isfahan facility, Iran will have the upper hand in future talks. It is not only a technical achievement but also a far more political gain. It is a winning card in Iran’s hands,” he said.

Heavy-water reactors do not need enriched uranium for fuel and instead use the more easily produced uranium oxide pellets.

Iran has also been making strides in its efforts to enrich uranium. Officials said Thursday Iran had increased the number of centrifuges _ machines used to enrich uranium _ at their enrichment facility in Natanz, and that a new, more advanced type of centrifuge had been tested.

Ahmadinejad said the next step is to build nuclear power plants without help from foreign countries.

Iran is putting the finishing touches on a nuclear power plant with Russian help in Bushehr, in southern Iran, but the uranium fuel to power it is imported. Tehran also plans to build a 360-megawatt light-water nuclear power plant in Darkhovin, in the southwestern Khuzestan province, which it will power with its own fuel.

“With the construction of (indigenous) nuclear power plants, all of Iran’s nuclear energy needs will be met locally,” Ahmadinejad said.

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