Enriched uranium is a key ingredient in both the nuclear fuel needed to produce electricity in power plants -- and in atomic bombs.
Yesterday, two Iranian officials said a "few tons" of uranium already have been converted to the gas. Because little is lost in the process, Iran would now appear to possess a sizable amount of uranium hexafluoride gas, in defiance of a demand last month by the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Tehran stop all enrichment-related activities.
Hussein Musavian, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, urged calm, saying the conversion process is only for what he called "experimental" purposes.
But at the State Department in Washington, spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday that this assertion is hard to believe, especially if Iran plans to convert all the uranium it has. "Clearly, 37 tons is not a test, as Iran suggests. It's a production run," he said.
But Ereli went no further. He merely repeated a statement issued by the State Department on 21 September deploring what it calls Iran's intention to possess nuclear weapons.
"It comes as no surprise that once again Iran is defying the board [of the IAEA] and is producing uranium hexafluoride feed material. There is no peaceful use for this enriched uranium at the present time, in our view. It clearly indicates that Iran is continuing its efforts in a nuclear weapons program," Ereli said.
The head of the IAEA, Muhammad el-Baradei, said today he hopes Iran will fully suspend all of its uranium-enrichment activities "as a confidence-boosting measure."
Iran's latest announcement came a day after Tehran said it has significantly increased the range of its Shihab-3 missiles. The missiles had a previous range of 1,300 kilometers, making them capable of striking Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East. The improved Shihab-3 has a range of more than 1,900 kilometers, enough to strike targets in Europe.
Against this background, Iran's claimed success in converting uranium is disturbing and even confusing, according to Rose Gottemoeller, a former antiproliferation official in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Gottemoeller told RFE/RL that Iran is clearly challenging the world community. She said that at last month's meeting, the IAEA sent Tehran what she calls an unambiguous signal.
"The message was clear to Iran: 'You need to build the confidence of the international community in your peaceful intentions, and a very important way to do that is not to continue converting uranium to uranium hexafluoride.' So that message was very clearly delivered to Iran, and they've chosen to ignore it," she said.
Gottemoeller was asked about Russia's possible role in Iran's current nuclear capabilities. She concedes that Moscow once helped Iran with its nuclear program, but notes that in 1998, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -- under U.S. pressure -- agreed to halt the sale of centrifuges to Iran. Uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into centrifuges used to enrich uranium.
Now, Gottemoeller said, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is aligned with the West on Iran. "Actually, the Russians have responded to concerns that the United States has put forward in the past decade and have shut down some very significant activities that were of grave concern and could have really helped the Iranians [develop nuclear weapons]," she said. "There's no question that [Russian help] was a problem in the past. [But] it is pretty clear to me that [the Russians] are very fired up by this defiance of the international community, and they are essentially on the same page with the Europeans."
Gottemoeller said she is as baffled by Iran's defiance as she is troubled by it. She said she hopes Tehran's stance is merely an effort to win concessions from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States, which are leading the effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Otherwise, she said, Iran can't expect to benefit.
"I am hopeful that what we're seeing now is some negotiating tactics," Gottemoeller said. "If not, I think [the Iranians are] making decisions that will isolate them, that will prevent them from developing their oil and gas industry. That's where their main resources are. Why would they take steps that would basically turn them into a nuclear pariah, where they couldn't really benefit from the very considerable natural resources that they have in the gas and oil arena?"
The IAEA's board of governors will meet again on 25 November to decide what steps to take if Iran continues to defy the agency.