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Iran Announces New Progress In Nuclear Program

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad waves as he poses with officials outside Iran's fuel manufacturing plant during its inauguration ceremony.
(RFE/RL) -- It's becoming a state tradition.

In 2007, Iran designated the 20th day of the first Iranian month as National Nuclear Technology Day. Since then, some form of nuclear progress is announced every year on that day with much fanfare.

This year’s ceremony included ringing the "nuclear bell "at schools and numerous reports about "Iran’s nuclear achievement" on state television.

Later, a ceremony was held in Isfahan during which the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, said that Iran has installed 7,000 centrifuges in its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility, and has "entered a new stage in the technology of uranium enrichment."

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who had earlier in the day inaugurated Iran's first nuclear fuel-manufacturing plant in Isfahan, said that his country has achieved two major steps in its nuclear progress.

"The first achievement is the packaging of nuclear fuel and preparing it for use in nuclear reactors and the production of energy," he said. "The second achievement is the testing of two new centrifuges with capacity a few times higher than the current centrifuges."

Iran has defied UN Security Council resolutions calling for a halt to its uranium-enrichment activities, including three resolutions imposing sanctions.

The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told reporters in Isfahan that since Iran has practically proved that it has completed the nuclear fuel cycle, the suspension of uranium enrichment cannot be discussed with Iran.

Extending A Hand

At the same time, the announcements are likely to increase concern over Iran’s nuclear activities.

They come a day after the United States said that it will fully participate in group negotiations aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The United States announced its decision after a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in London. The meeting was aimed at defusing tensions over Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that William Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, would now take part in the talks "as a full participant, not just as an observer." Clinton told reporters on April 8 that there's nothing more important than to convince Iran "to cease its effort to obtain nuclear weapons."

The move marks a shift in U.S. policy toward Iran. The previous U.S. administration had refused to take part in the so-called 5+ 1 negotiations with Iran unless Tehran would suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Burns attended one meeting, but only as an observer.

Iran says all its nuclear activities are peaceful, but Western countries are concerned that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for a civilian nuclear reactor but at high levels of enrichment it can also be used in the production of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. offer is the latest in a series of overtures by the administration of President Barack Obama toward Iran. They have included a video message to the Iranian public on the Persian New Year and a brief meeting of U.S. Pakistan-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke with an Iranian deputy foreign minister.

Question Of Goodwill

Iran has so far reacted to the overtures by saying it wants to see concrete changes in U.S. policy.

Prior to receiving the U.S. offer, Ahmadinejad said on April 8 that change should be in actions not words.

"You have said that you have reached out your hand sincerely to the Iranian people," Ahmadinejad said. "I want to tell you that the Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it, if it is really and truly based on honesty, justice, and respect."

Bahman Aghayi Diba, a Washington-based Iran analyst, says that the gestures of goodwill by the Obama administration put Iran in a difficult position.

"Iran cannot say, as it did before, during the Bush era, that 'the U.S. is being hostile toward us and therefore we don’t want to have any ties with them,'" Diba says.

"Iran needs to have a suitable reaction to the offer. If Iran continues in its previous approach, then it would prove to Iranians and also to the international scene that it doesn’t have goodwill regarding its nuclear program and doesn’t want to create trust."

Despite the new U.S. efforts to engage Iran, Tehran on April 8 charged U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi with spying "under the guise of being a reporter."

The 31-year-old Saberi, who worked for U.S. National Public Radio and several other media, was detained in Tehran in late January for working in Iran after her accreditation expired.

Washington has expressed concern over her detention and charges against her and called for her release.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report