PRAGUE, April 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has raised the stakes in the dispute over its nuclear program by claiming to have successfully enriched uranium to the level of nuclear fuel.
At a special ceremony on April 11, Ahmadinejad announced that "dear Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world."
He said the uranium was enriched suitable for nuclear power stations.
Experts say that means an enrichment level of 3.5 percent -- far below the 90 percent enrichment required for weapons-grade material.
But they add that the principles involved in producing bomb-grade material are the same as for enriching fuel for power stations.
The actual enrichment process itself is complicated. Iranian officials say that, to reach the 3.5 percent level, the uranium was passed through a cascade of 164 centrifuges. Many more centrifuges are needed if Iran is to enrich industrial quantities of uranium. But Iran has made clear that is what it plans to have. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, said on April 11 that a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges will be completed this year.
Eventually, a cascade complex of 50,000 units is planned -- which would certainly be able to enrich uranium to the standard required for weapons.
Changing The Diplomatic Ground
A nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mark Fitzpatrick, says Iran's claim to have succeeded with enrichment "is creating a new situation, new facts on the ground."
"This is the step which the rest of the world has been asking Iran to desist from taking," he says.
The move defies in spirit the UN Security Council's demand that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activity by April 28. It also comes just days after press reports from Washington saying the United States is preparing for possible heavy air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The U.S. government has denied those reports. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says that the Pentagon naturally has "contingency plans" for a wide range of situations, adding that "one would be critical of the department were they not to have done so."
Analyst Mark Fitzpatrick says Iran may have chosen this tense moment to announce the enrichment in order to strengthen its hand in any negotiations with the international community. Iran now considers it has the status of the eighth member of the world's nuclear enrichment club, and must be treated as such.
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due to visit Tehran in the next few days to discuss the upcoming Security Council deadline for Tehran to end all its enrichment efforts.
A team of IAEA inspectors recently returned to Iran, and members of the team are now at the Natanz nuclear facility, which is where Iran enriched the uranium. They have not reported encountering any problems or hindrances in their monitoring work.
One unusual aspect of events on April 11 was that it was a former Iranian president, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who first made the announcement, some time before Ahmadinejad.
Political experts see this as a possible attempt by the former president to raise his profile with the West, and possibly to undermine Ahmadinejad, whose often intemperate remarks have shocked the international community.
"The West has always regarded Rafsanjani as somebody with whom they could deal, and Ahmadinejad has shown himself as somebody who is impossible to deal with," says Fitzpatrick.
But Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, which oversees the workings of government, has been closely involved in the past with the nuclear program, and he is unlikely to back away from it now.
What The Street Thinks
A demonstration in support of Iran's nuclear program outside the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan in January (epa)
IRANIANS SPEAK OUT ON THE DISPUTE: To find out more about what Iranians think about the international controversy over their country's nuclear program, RADIO FARDA asked listeners to express their views....(more)