Middle East

Iran Takes Next Step In Uranium Enrichment

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Iran said Monday it will begin enriching uranium to a higher grade than it has in the past. The U.S. and its partners say they are left with few options than to try to tighten the financial screws over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Iran says starting tomorrow it will begin enriching uranium to a higher grade than it has in the past. In response, the U.S. and its partners say they're left with few other options and it's time to tighten the financial screws over Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Obama administration reached out sincerely to Iran at great political risk. But he told reporters in Paris today that Iran has rejected these initiatives, leaving the U.S. no choice but to try to tighten sanctions.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track. The point of the pressure is to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table and to resolve this issue in way that prevents Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been trying to persuade the four other veto holders on the U.N. Security Council to agree to tougher sanctions. France, which chairs the Security Council this month, is clearly on board, according to Defense Minister Herve Morin, who spoke alongside Gates today.

Mr. HERVE MORIN (Defense Minister, France): (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: It's obvious that nothing has worked, Morin said, adding it will be necessary now to talk about sanctions.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner went further, accusing Iran of trying to blackmail the international community by announcing plans to enrich uranium to a level needed to produce medical isotopes in a research reactor in Tehran. France and Russia had offered to enrich uranium for the reactor if Iran would send its stockpile abroad.

Russian officials are now sounding more open to sanctions. China is the only permanent Security Council member that's holding out. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Chinese counterpart last month to warn him of the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran: instability in the Persian Gulf.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): So the argument we and others are making to China is we understand that right now that is something that seems counterproductive to you to sanction a country from which you get so much of the natural resources your growing economy needs. But think about the longer term implications.

KELEMEN: Today, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged that it will take time to get sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. But he thinks China will want the international community to remain united.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): We are looking at a range of options of, you know, ways to focus on putting pressure on the Iranian government without putting pressure on the Iranian people. One of our targets would be the Revolutionary Guard Corps that is playing an increasingly large economic, as well as security role in Iran.

KELEMEN: An Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Karim Sadjapour, says the Revolutionary Guard Corps is a convenient target, not only because it's involved in Iran's nuclear program, but also the regime's crackdown on protestors - a new factor in the Obama administration's calculation.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iran Expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): It's not coincidental that the adjective describing sanctions has changed from the word crippling to the word targeted. And, again, that's because increasingly, sanctions are being looked at in the context of Iran's internal political dynamics. And the Obama administration certainly doesn't want to pursue any punitive measures that could be harmful to the cause of the opposition.

KELEMEN: The sanctions that the U.N. Security Council is likely to pass, he says, will be diluted to get China on board. Sadjadpour expects tougher measures out of the U.S. and Europe after that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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Iran's Nuclear 'Good-Cop, Bad-Cop' Routine

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24 i

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's announcement Monday that it intends to enrich uranium at higher levels — moving it closer to being able to produce a nuclear warhead — seems to contradict a message Tehran sent just last week offering to abide by an international plan to ship its uranium abroad for processing.

Analysts say Iran's leadership seems to be sending mixed signals in a possible diplomatic ploy.

"We may be spectators at a 'good-cop, bad-cop' routine that's designed to confuse us," says Rob Malley, director of Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group.

Craig Eisendrath, chairman of the Project for Nuclear Awareness, suggests it is part of Iran's continuing strategy to keep a wedge between the U.S. and its allies on one hand, and Russia and China on the other over the issue of how to respond to Iran's nuclear pursuits. The United States and others support tougher sanctions against Iran, while Russia and China have resisted.

On Monday, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will begin enriching uranium to 20 percent — beyond the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, the justification Tehran has traditionally given for its enrichment program. Iran says the higher level is needed for medical purposes.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the international community had failed to respond to Iranian proposals for a swap that would have allowed Iran to obtain the enriched uranium it says it needs.

Ahmadinejad: Door Still Open

Even while he called for a big jump in the country's nuclear enrichment, Ahmadinejad insisted that "the door was still open" to a nuclear deal.

But after Iran's announcement, the United States and France on Monday called for tougher U.N. sanctions.

"No U.S. president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "All these initiatives have been rejected."

Just days before, Ahmadinejad and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had said that conditions were positive for the fuel swap, in which Iran was to have sent low-enriched uranium to France and Russia for further processing.

That plan would have — at least temporarily — relieved the fears of the U.S. and other nations that Iran is really seeking the capability to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb.

It's not the first time that Iranian officials have expressed seemingly confusing and even contradictory statements about their willingness to cooperate on nuclear issues.

Malley says Iran's shifting policy statements may reflect internal divisions in Iran. He also cautions that foreign observers shouldn't overestimate the extent of their knowledge about what's really going on in Iran.

The government may be trying to rally its conservative base, he says, especially in the face of what could be another surge of opposition protests centered around the 31st anniversary on Thursday of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Can Sanctions Have An Effect?

Eisendrath says the problem for the international community is to figure out how to design sanctions that will afflict Iran's leadership without alienating the people. The current domestic turmoil in Iran, he says, "is very much in our interest, but we need to be very careful about imposing sanctions that will turn the Iranian people against us."

Middle East expert Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, says Iranian officials see themselves as having three options for obtaining the enriched nuclear fuel they say they need.

The first option is to do what Ahmadinejad has ordered: for Iran to enrich the fuel itself. The second would be to buy the enriched fuel from other countries, something that Iran proposed doing before the idea of a fuel swap was raised.

The third option would be to agree to the fuel swap, in which Iran's low-enriched fuel would be shipped to Russia and France, where it would be enriched to 20 percent and returned to Iran in a form that could be used for medical purposes, but would be very difficult to weaponize.

The trouble with that proposal is that the U.S. and its allies want Iran to ship most of its nuclear fuel out of the country in one batch. That would ensure that Iran wouldn't have the necessary materials on hand if it decided it wanted to secretly process fuel for military purposes.

Iran has proposed to swap the fuel out in several batches, a plan that would keep at least some of the fuel in the country throughout the transaction.

Leverett notes that the U.S. and its allies will see Iran's decision to enrich its own fuel as a provocative act. But he says that the Iranian government is still open to negotiating on the other options.

Malley isn't convinced that Russia and especially China will go along with any move toward increased sanctions. He notes that China's long-term energy needs are of far greater concern to it than the threat that Iran will be able to build a nuclear bomb.

Malley also says the Obama administration needs to look beyond the nuclear dispute to engage with Iran in other ways.

"We could be talking with them about Afghanistan, about Iraq, about the drug issue," he says. "We need to broaden the agenda and not tie ourselves into this single-minded pursuit of a nuclear deal or sanctions."



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