- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

TEHRAN | 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.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments came two days after the inauguration of a facility that 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,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said on state television.

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 Iran over its nuclear program.

However, it is less worrying for the West in terms of its potential to be used in nuclear weapons, rather 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. Iran is already believed to have enough enriched uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon, should Tehran decide to do so.

The United States and its allies have expressed concern over Iran's developing nuclear program for fear it is masking a weapons program. Tehran says its nuclear program is only designed to create peaceful energy.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments come after U.S. administration officials said early last 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 evil.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran would present a new proposal for negotiations, saying “conditions have changed” - an apparent reference to President Obama's election and Iran's progress in its nuclear program.

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

Mr. 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 the plant is imported. Tehran also plans to build a 360-megawatt light-water nuclear power plant in Darkhovin, in southwestern Khuzestan province, which it will power with its own fuel

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