Iran Nuclear NewsIran to enrich uranium to 20% as nuclear fears...

Iran to enrich uranium to 20% as nuclear fears grow

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ImageBBC: Iran has told the UN's nuclear watchdog it will step up its nuclear programme from Tuesday, raising Western fears that it is planning to make a bomb. BBC News

ImageIran has told the UN's nuclear watchdog it will step up its nuclear programme from Tuesday, raising Western fears that it is planning to make a bomb.

Its nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said earlier that Iran would start enriching uranium to 20% at Natanz, Iran's main uranium enrichment plant.

He added that 10 new uranium enrichment plants would be built – a massive claim greeted with scepticism by experts.

The move heightens fears that Iran is moving closer to weapons-grade uranium.

Western countries have criticised Iran for stalling on a deal over its enrichment programme.

The latest development comes days before Iran celebrates the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Thursday.

The event is expected to see pro- and anti-government demonstrations.

Witnesses say the situation in the Iranian capital Tehran is increasingly tense, with a series of checkpoints already set up across the city.

Major step

Tehran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna said on Monday he had handed in a formal letter announcing his country's plans to increase enrichment.

"Iran's official letter about commencing the 20% enrichment activity in order to provide fuel for the Tehran reactor has been handed over to the IAEA," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iranian TV by phone.

Iran earlier appeared ready to exchange its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade foreign fuel but wanted changes to a UN-drafted plan.

Speaking on Sunday evening, Mr Salehi said that enriched uranium production would be halted if Iran received fuel enriched to 20% from abroad.

Iran currently enriches uranium to a level of 3.5% but requires 20% enriched uranium for its Tehran research reactor, which is meant to produce medical isotopes. A bomb would require uranium enriched to at least 90%.

To achieve 20% enrichment would be such a major step for Iran, David Albright of Washington's Institute for Science and International Security told the Associated Press news agency, it "would be going most of the rest of the way to weapon-grade uranium".

Experts poured scorn on Mr Salehi's announcement that 10 new uranium enrichment plants would be built, pointing to the cost of such an undertaking and Iran's problems obtaining components because of UN sanctions.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, described the proposal as a "farcical bluff".

"Iran presumably could start construction by pushing dirt around for 10 new facilities, but there is no way it could begin to construct and equip that many more plants," he told Reuters news agency.

"It is hard-pressed today even to keep the centrifuges installed at Natanz running smoothly."

Diplomats alarmed

News of the enrichment move, which was ordered by President Ahmadinejad on Sunday, alarmed Western diplomats.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called the announcement a "serious provocation" that "risks testing the patience of the international community".

A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said the report was "clearly a matter of serious concern", while US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called for further "international pressure" on Iran.

"The international community has offered the Iranian government multiple opportunities to provide reassurance of its intentions," he said on a visit to Rome.

"The results have been very disappointing."

He added that he believed there was "still time for sanctions and pressure to work" if the international community united on the issue.

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