- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

TEHRAN | Iran has succeeded in producing its first significant batch of more-enriched uranium, the country’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Wednesday, a development defying U.N. demands to halt the controversial program.

The uranium has been enriched from about 3.5 percent to 20 percent purity, which is needed to fuel a medical research reactor, Mr. Salehi said, according to the ISNA news agency.

That level is far below the more than 90 percent needed to build a nuclear weapon, but U.S. officials have expressed concern Iran may be moving closer to the ability to reach weapons-grade level.

Washington is accelerating its campaign for a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend enrichment, as demanded by the United Nations. Mr. Salehi’s announcement was a further sign of Tehran’s determination to push ahead with the program.

Tehran began the further enrichment in February after talks stalled over a U.N.-brokered proposal that the United States hoped would at least temporarily leave Iran unable to produce a warhead. The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, an assertion Iran denies.

Under the proposal, Iran was to send 2,420 pounds of low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be further enriched to 20 percent and converted into fuel rods, which would then be returned to Iran for use in the research reactor. Doing so would leave Iran with insufficient low-enriched uranium to further purify to weapons-grade level.

But Iran made counterdemands on the deal that the U.S. and its allies rejected, saying the demands would thwart the goal of the swap. Among Tehran’s proposals were that the swap be simultaneous or that smaller amounts of low-enriched uranium be sent abroad.

Iran says a nuclear fuel swap with the West proposed under the U.N.-drafted plan still is on the table, noting there was tacit agreement on the amount and timing of the exchange but that the two sides need to talk on the venue.

The U.S. is working to gather support at the United Nations for a new round of sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend enrichment entirely.

Mr. Salehi’s announcement was a sign Iran is determined to move ahead with its program.

He said that, so far, 11 pounds of 20 percent-enriched uranium has been produced and that just over 3 pounds a month were needed to run the research reactor in Tehran.

On Feb. 11, days after the further enriching began, Iran announced that it had succeeded in producing a few ounces of the material.

However, Iran must first process the material into fuel rods, and it is not clear whether it has the know-how to do so. The research reactor produces medical isotopes, including material for treating cancer and other diseases that the government says will go toward treating an estimated 850,000 people.

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