Iran's declaration that its scientists have successfully enriched uranium took the West by surprise, writes Marian Houk
"I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries. A laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium on Sunday, 9 April 2006," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad on Tuesday.
Ahmadinejad made the announcement in a nationally televised ceremony before an audience including ministers, scientists, senior military officials and deputies. It followed statements by Iran's atomic energy chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh that Iranian nuclear scientists had managed to enrich uranium to the purity required to fuel civilian nuclear reactors. The news comes at a time when the United States and other Western powers are stepping up pressure on Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme.
The announcement -- which was preceded by a ceremony in which dancers waved vials and clerics shouted "God is great" -- flies in the face of United Nations Security Council demands that Iran stop all enrichment activities by 28 April, and came just hours before a visit to Iran by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed El-Baradei on Wednesday. The timing of the announcement has led some commentators to suggest that Ahmadinejad may be grandstanding, the triumphalism intended for public consumption before Tehran cuts a deal.
But according to Hamid Reza Taraghi, a senior aide to Ahmadinejad, Iran no longer needs to negotiate. The enrichment was now a " fait accompli ".
El-Baradei was travelling to Iran for talks with senior Iranian officials in an attempt to clarify outstanding questions posed by the Vienna-based agency's board of governors, including "safeguard verification issues" and other "confidence- building measures". He is due to report back to the IAEA, and to the Security Council, before 28 April.
In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, an American official in Washington explained that Iranian researchers "had started off on a small-scale, working with individual centrifuges. Then they learned how to operate a cascade of ten piped-together centrifuges; the next step is 164 centrifuges -- a key threshold, technically. Once they learn how to master that, they are on their way: six units of 164 piped-together centrifuges is almost 1,000 units; three of these together would make about 3,000 units. From 3,000 units and higher industrial-scale enrichment is possible."
Iranian officials have said they will not abandon their work on the nuclear fuel cycle, but hold out the possibility that production of enriched uranium fuel "on an industrial scale" remains negotiable.
"Once Iran has mastered the know-how, they can apply it to a secret parallel military programme. Step after step, incrementally, Iranians have been proceeding, aggressively, in that direction, as we watch," said the US official.
Washington condemned Iran's announcement that it has successfully enriched uranium for nuclear fuel, saying "once again they have chosen the pathway of defiance."
Iran's move will only result in further isolation, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, and the US will have to consult with its allies on what steps to take.
During a recent visit to Geneva Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki conceded, in an exchange with journalists at a UN press conference, that there might be one or two "outstanding questions" concerning Iran's nuclear programme. His government was "ready to provide answers for those as well -- providing that other parties are looking for answers to such questions".
Iranian officials are sceptical of the motives behind US and EU attempts to push the country into suspending attempts to produce enriched uranium fuel which Iran insists is for peaceful use.
In March the IAEA Board of Governors referred their concerns to the Security Council which, after three weeks of intense negotiations agreed to give the IAEA until the end of April to confirm that Iran has complied with their request all uranium enrichment.
A day after the Security Council deadline for confirming the suspension of Iran's programme Mottaki told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that IAEA inspections "had not proven anything contrary to our initial statement that Iran's nuclear programme is peaceful and has never been diverted towards prohibited activities".
"That, during all these years of research, there has been no diversion of nuclear material towards prohibited activities is in itself proof of Iran's peaceful intentions," he argued.
Iran, said Mottaki, had no intention of withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), not least because the right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme is guaranteed by the treaty.
At the Geneva-based think-tank, the Global Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), Mottaki was asked to elaborate on an Iranian proposal to establish "regional consortiums on fuel cycle development" that would be placed under IAEA safeguards.
Shahram Chubin, director of studies at GCSP, said that the Iranian foreign minister indicated that Asian countries would be the first to be approached. But, he said, key questions remain unanswered, including where such regional facilities would be based, and what degree of participation other countries would have, including access to fuel.
An official at the US Mission in Geneva expressed concern that "several serious questions remain unanswered, including questions about the history and scope of their centrifuge programmes; another serious question concerns the extent of Iran's dealing with [Pakistan's now closed] A Q Khan network; questions about the history and scope of their plutonium separation experiments; and questions about individuals working in Iran's nuclear programme who have suspected military connections and, indeed, about Iranian military involvement in general in Iran's nuclear programme." The overarching point, said the official, is that "the IAEA has indicated in its latest report that, even after three years, the agency still cannot certify that Iran's nuclear programme is peaceful."
Many experts and officials believe that direct talks between Iran and the US are the only way to resolve the current stand-off. Iran's ambassador to the UN in New York, Javad Zarif, has said, both in a statement published on his mission's website (entitled "An Unnecessary Crisis"), and in an opinion article recently published in The New York Times and in the Tehran Times, that Iran has volunteered, "within a balanced package", to introduce national legislation that would "permanently ban the development, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons".