International tensions over Iran's disputed nuclear program looked set to rise further today after the country's atomic energy chief announced plans to drastically step up production of enriched uranium.
Fereidoun Abbasi-Davani also said output would be transferred from Natanz to a new secretly-built facility at Fordow, near Qom, whose existence paved the way for a fresh round of United Nations sanctions against Iran when it was revealed in 2009.
The announcement came after Yukiya Amano, head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), wrote to the Iranian regime last week expressing concerns about the program. The west fears it may be aimed at producing a nuclear weapon, while Iran insists it is merely for energy purposes.
Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's atomic energy agency, told Iranian reporters that production of 20 percent enriched uranium would be increased three-fold by the end of 2011 and said the announcement of the move to Fordow was in response to the IAEA's correspondence.
"The response to the IAEA has been given by increased work in the research and technical sector of the nuclear (program)," Abbasi said. "We are under the supervision and [work with] the knowledge of the agency. We will transfer enrichment to the Fordow site."
'Slow Motion Breakout'?
The announcement was quickly condemned by Western governments, which questioned why Iran needed to up its production of uranium enriched to a level far higher than that necessary to fuel nuclear power stations.
A statement to the IAEA written by Hungary on behalf of the European Union said the 27-nation bloc "notes with particular concern" Iran's announcement.
The move was also branded a "provocation" by France, whose foreign ministry spokesman said, “Iran must immediately end this constant violation of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council and the IAEA governors, rather than showing its contempt for international law."
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said, "Provocative steps such as this do not build confidence in either Iran's interest in meaningful talks or Iran's nuclear intent.”
David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, told RFE/RL that while the increased enrichment still falls far below the 90 percent level needed to make atomic bombs, the move appears to constitute part of a “slow motion breakout."
“Iran is inching its way toward having weapon-grade uranium. Now they may not do it in the end, they may be convinced not to do it, but they’re moving in this slow motion breakout and you have to think that they’re trying to acclimatize the world to what they’re doing,” he said.
World powers haven’t been acclimatized so far.
The UN Security Council has already slapped four rounds of sanctions on Iran to try to persuade it to abandon enrichment activities, while separate embargoes have been imposed by the United States, the European Union, and Japan.
On June 7,alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said the two leaders had agreed to consider implementing new sanctions if the IAEA body finds that Tehran is continuing to withhold details about its uranium enrichment.
A day earlier, on June 6, the IAEA’s Amano said he had received new evidence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear work, comments President Mahmud Ahmadinejad dismissed as being dictated by Washington.
The announcement from Tehran came shortly before the IAEA board, meeting in Vienna, was due to discuss Iran's nuclear program.
In its latest report on Iran, in May, the IAEA said Tehran had informed it in February of plans to begin feeding nuclear material into enrichment cascades at Fordow "by this summer." But the agency added that as of May 21, no centrifuges had been introduced into the facility.
Abbasi-Davani said new more advanced centrifuges would be used at Fordow than the decades old P-1 type once acquired on the black market and in use at Iran's main enrichment facility in Natanz. "Soon we will install 164-machine centrifuge cascades of the new generation (at Fordow)," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Centrifuges are machines that are used to enrich uranium.
Iran only disclosed the existence of the Fordow site, inside a mountain bunker, in September 2009, after Western intelligence had detected it.
written based on RFE/RL and agency reports with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari