Iran To Begin Enriching Uranium

Correction Feb. 10, 2010

We incorrectly identified Robert Gates as the secretary of state. Gates is the secretary of defense.

Just days after suggesting Iran might, after all, agree to a nuclear deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran's president says Tehran will begin enriching its uranium stockpile on its own. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization announced that further enrichment of its uranium would begin Tuesday.

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The president of Iran has ordered the countrys uranium to be enriched to a much higher level than previously. This has added to suspicions about Irans plans for its nuclear program. Iranian leaders have made a confusing series of claims and counterclaims, and NPRs Mike Shuster is trying to sort them out from the gulf city of Dubai.

MIKE SHUSTER: The head of Irans Atomic Energy Organization said today that enrichment of its uranium to a higher level would begin tomorrow. Iran has been threatening to take this step for months. But it has also been engaged with the U.S. and Europe in an extended quasi-negotiation to send its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further processing. The intention is to produce nuclear fuel for a research reactor in Tehran that manufactures isotopes for medical care.

Twice, Irans President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he would participate in such a deal; the latest was last week. And then yesterday in a speech in Tehran which Irans key nuclear officials present, Ahmadinejad said the U.S. and Europe had failed to respond to his offers. And he issued these instructions.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) We told them they had three months. Otherwise, we would start enrichment ourselves. Now, I say, begin production of 20 percent enriched uranium with the centrifuges. However, the way is still open for interaction.

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejads action was puzzling. Just the day before, on Saturday, Irans foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Iran was ready to make a deal for its enriched uranium. Mottaki was speaking at a European security conference in Munich.

Minister MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI (Foreign Affairs, Iran): (Through translator) In Iran, there is only voice about the issue, and that is the same-job fuel has been accepted and recognized. As I have told you before, there have been certain doubts about it, and efforts were made to remove these doubts.

SHUSTER: But the conflicting voices coming from Iranian leaders have only served to deepen the doubts of U.S. officials. At that same conference in Munich, President Obamas national security adviser, Retired General James Jones, expressed the view that more sanctions against Iran are coming.

Retire General JAMES JONES (National Security Adviser, United States): The unprecedented level of international consensus and unity on Iran, with regard to its nuclear program, demonstrates that Tehran must meet its responsibilities or face stronger sanctions and perhaps even deeper isolation.

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejads command to enrich Irans uranium to 20 percent of the isotope U235 is baffling in and of itself. Iran has the machinery to do it -thousands of gas centrifuges installed at a facility at Natanz. But according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which regularly monitors Irans uranium enrichment process, it does not have the capability to turn that enriched uranium into reactor fuel.

That is why there have been talks about sending the uranium to Russia and France, which do have the necessary technical capabilities. So suspicions have deepened that Irans ultimate goal is 90 percent enriched uranium, which would form the explosive core of a nuclear bomb.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Robert Gates is the secretary of Defense.

In Rome on Sunday, Secretary of State Robert Gates also warned that more sanctions could follow.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work. We have seen what is going on inside Iran. I think the international community does not want the Iranian people to suffer more hardship than is absolutely necessary.

SHUSTER: All of this is happening as Irans opposition movement plans large demonstrations on Thursday, the anniversary of Irans Islamic revolution. The leaders of the movement are urging protesters to take to the streets. Irans security forces are threatening to use violence to stop that from happening.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Dubai.

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