Iran Nuclear NewsIran declares another nuclear advance

Iran declares another nuclear advance

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Los Angeles Times: Iran announced Saturday it had reached another milestone in its nuclear program, appearing eager to create an air of inevitability to its acquisition of atomic technology in the face of a U.N. deadline this week to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment operations. The Los Angeles Times

It stresses that its intent is peaceful as it opens a heavy-water production plant. But recalcitrance over this week’s U.N. deadline is obvious.

By Alissa J. Rubin
Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — Iran announced Saturday it had reached another milestone in its nuclear program, appearing eager to create an air of inevitability to its acquisition of atomic technology in the face of a U.N. deadline this week to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment operations.

In choosing to inaugurate a heavy-water production plant just days before the threat of censure from world powers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled that the Islamic Republic would not be cowed. Yet he took pains to suggest that the plant’s launch was a development that the world should regard as peaceful. And he emphasized that even Israel, which he has said should be wiped off the face of the Earth, should not be fearful of Iran.

“We are not a threat to anybody — even the Zionist regime, which is a definite enemy for the people of the region,” he said at the plant, about 150 miles southwest of Tehran.

Western countries believe Iran wants nuclear technology so it can gain weapons capability and increase its already considerable leverage in the region.

Heavy-water plants are “dual use,” suitable for civilian projects such as generating electricity but also adaptable to military purposes.

The plant will produce the fuel for an adjacent heavy-water nuclear reactor scheduled for completion by 2009, according to a nuclear expert close to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

An operational reactor would put Iran among fewer than a dozen countries with heavywater technology. Among the other countries are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — and Canada, India and Norway.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London estimated that the heavy-water reactor, once up and running, would need a year to produce enough plutonium for a single “simple implosion weapon.”

This week is one of intense nuclear politics for Tehran. The Security Council has ordered Iran to suspend uranium enrichment by Thursday and to respond to IAEA questions.

Iran has sent clear signals that it will refuse to meet the Security Council demands.

Last week, Iran responded ambiguously to an offer from world powers of economic and technological incentives, including civilian nuclear technology, if it suspended uranium enrichment, which it began on a small scale in April.

An acceptance would have put off Security Council action. But because Iran appears to have declined the offer, according to diplomats familiar with Tehran’s response, the Security Council is to meet Thursday on its Iran resolution, which states that the next step is economic sanctions.

A quick move to sanctions looks unlikely. The United Nations has been a halting player in the effort to push Iran to suspend its nuclear activities.

The United States and Britain are the strongest backers of economic sanctions if Iran refuses to give up uranium enrichment.

France, which until the recent Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon had been a similarly strong supporter of sanctions, announced Friday that it was reluctant to see any increase in tensions between the Muslim world and the West and therefore wanted to avoid a rush to penalize Iran.

From the beginning of the debate over Iran’s program, Russia and China have acquiesced only reluctantly in the U.S.-British push, and in the last week they signaled that they wanted negotiations to continue rather than moving toward confrontation.

The start-up of the heavywater production plant is unlikely to make a significant difference to Iran or to Western countries, because the reactor itself is still several years from completion.

“This has always been scheduled, so really it’s old news,” a European diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

White House response was measured. It said the U.S. would consider Iran’s announcement in charting its next steps along with that of other permanent Security Council members. “This will be factored in as part of their response,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

Nuclear experts, however, view the production plant’s completion as a significant technological marker.

“If they said it’s operational, if it’s producing heavy water, that would be a big breakthrough,” said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who heads the Institute for Science and International Security.

The IAEA monitors the reactor’s design, but because the reactor has no nuclear material yet, the atomic agency has limited authority to look at the site. Iranian atomic energy agency officials said the plant went online Saturday. The heavy water produced by the plant is to be used as a moderating and cooling substance in the adjoining nuclear reactor.

In 2002, an Iranian resistance group revealed that for 18 years Iran had hidden efforts to obtain nuclear technology despite being a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The U.S. tried to block Iran’s effort to establish a heavy-water plant, discouraging foreign countries from aiding the Islamic Republic, but eventually Iran designed its own with the help of Russian institutes.

Iranian atomic officials insist that they want to use the reactor primarily for the manufacture of isotopes used to treat medical conditions such as cancer.

From Iran’s point of view, the plant is a signal of its resolve to move forward.

Radzhab Safarov, general director of the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary Iranian Studies, said in a phone interview that Iran had planned to launch the facility later this year or early next year, but had speeded up the process because it wanted to signal to the world that outsiders could not halt the country’s technological progress.

“Iran badly wants to make the world community face the fact that it has a complete nuclear cycle this year before a decision on sanctions is taken,” Safarov said.

The next period of decision-making by the international community and the Iranian response will be crucial in how confrontational the debate becomes — and whether it pushes toward an armed conflict or a diplomatic solution, diplomats said.

“What is crucially important now is that the next steps should keep a diplomatic solution open and enhance its chances,” said a senior Arab diplomat familiar with the debate who declined to be identified. The Americans and the Iranians “need to find a formula that allows them each to say they won, they got what they wanted from the other side.”

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Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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