In a carefully scripted nationally televised speech from Mashad, one of Iran’s holiest cities, that seemed to border on political theater, Ahmadinejad called on the West "not to cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians" by trying to force Iran to abandon uranium enrichment.
The announcement came two days ahead of a visit to Tehran this week by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is trying to resolve the West’s standoff with Iran. The UN Security Council has demanded Iran stop all enrichment activity by April 28. Iran has rejected this, saying it has a right to the process.
"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," Ahmadinejad said.
"I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries," he told an audience that included top military commanders and clerics in Mashad. The crowd broke into cheers of "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!" Some stood and thrust their fists in the air.
But, indeed, the level of enrichment announced by Ahmadinejad —3.5 percent—would work for producing power, not warheads, and Russia is deeply involved in both building a nuclear reactor for Iran in the port city of Busher, and actively seeking contracts to build as many as five more reactors for the Islamic state.
But Russian officials with Rosatom—who had hoped to sell nuclear fuel to Iran as well as take it back for storage and eventually reprocessing—were nonplussed by the announcement. Russia even tried, in an effort to mollify European Union and US concerns—to persuade Iran to enrich its uranium on Russian soil.
“I suppose that deal is off,” said one Rosatom spokesman who is close to the Iranian reactor deal. “We knew the Iranians were getting close to enrichment, but not as close as we thought—the announcement is bad for Russian business as well as Iran’s relations with the west.”
White House—enrichment a step in the wrong direction
The White House denounced the latest comments by Iranian officials, with spokesman Scott McClellan saying they "continue to show that Iran is moving in the wrong direction."
At the same time, Iran does, as a signatory nation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Ahmadinejad appeared to underscore Iran’s peaceful intentions in his Tuesday speech saying Iran "relies on the sublime beliefs that lie within the Iranian and Islamic culture. Our nation does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals."
He said Iran wanted to operate its nuclear program under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency and within its rights and regulations under the regulations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran’s enrichment capability
But, if the Iranian declaration is correct, the enrichment—and what appear to be rudimentary bomb-making documents that international inspectors have found in Iran— suggest Iranians may now have most of the knowledge that US President George Bush has sought to deny them.
At the least, Iran appears poised to be able eventually to expand enrichment on an industrial scale and, if they are determined to do so, enrich the uranium to levels necessary for an atomic weapon. But so far the quantities that the country has produced appear to be minuscule, and would work for producing power, not warheads.
International inspectors are stationed at Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz, and presumably will be able to confirm or refute Iranian claims in the coming days, assuming they have access to the centrifuges.
Centrifuges are devices whose rotors spin very rapidly to enrich, or concentrate, a rare form of uranium known as uranium 235, which can then be used to fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs. The 164 centrifuges Iran said it has strung together in a cascade are enough to test the technology, but with such a small number would take years to produce enough uranium for even one weapon.
"These 164 machines is more industrial," said a European diplomat who monitors Iran’s programme and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But still, it’s not like they haven’t come close to achieving this in the past."
Despite claims on Tuesday of an enrichment breakthrough, Iran has in the past seven years repeatedly used centrifuges and lasers to enrich uranium, according to reports by the nuclear agency. But the amounts have apparently been small and the setups experimental.
In order for Iran to produce enough fuel to run a reactor or build a nuclear weapon, it would require thousands of centrifuges.
But the breakthrough underlined how difficult it will be for the West to convince Iran to give up enrichment.
Speaking before Ahmadinejad, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh — the nuclear chief — said 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 of uranium hexaflouride, or UF-6, gas that Iran said last year that it had produced.
Aghazadeh said Iran plans to expand its enrichment program to be able to use 3,000 centrifuges by the end of the year.
In Vienna, officials of the IAEA, whose inspectors are now in Iran, declined to comment.
But a diplomat familiar with Tehran’s enrichment program said the announcement appeared to be accurate. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss information restricted to the agency.