Adding to Western anxieties over Tehran's disputed nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ordered his country's nuclear agency today to begin enriching uranium to a higher level.
Speaking at an exhibition on laser technology in Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad asked Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, to begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent.
"Recently we had told them [the West] to come and have a swap, although we could produce the 20 percent-enriched fuel ourselves. We gave them two-to-three months' time for such a deal," Ahmadinejad said.
"They started a new game and now I ask Dr. Salehi to start work on the production of 20 percent fuel using centrifuges. The doors for interaction are still open."
Ahmadinejad, whose speech was broadcast by state television, did not give a date for the start of the production of higher-enriched uranium.
But Salehi told state television later that Iran will tell the UN nuclear watchdog on February 8 of its plans to enrich uranium to 20 percent, adding that the process will begin on February 9. He said that "the higher enrichment will begin at the Natanz plant from the day after tomorrow [February 9]."
Ahmadinejad's comments prompted an immediate reaction by Britain's Foreign Ministry, which said the announcement was "clearly a matter of serious concern," and that such an activity "would be a deliberate breach" of UN Security Council resolutions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for more sanctions against Iran. "If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work," he told a news conference during a visit to Italy, Reuters reported.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg also mentioned further sanctions, saying: "It may be that the sanctions screw needs to be or can be turned here and there. We need to consider very carefully what impact our options could have."
Producing enriched uranium, which -- if enriched far enough -- can be used to produce nuclear weapons, is the West's main concern over Iran's nuclear program.
Iran currently enriches uranium to a level of about 4.5 percent. Enriched uranium can be used both for civilian and military purposes.
Civilian nuclear power requires uranium enrichment to about 3 percent. However, military use requires much higher levels of enrichment, up to 90 percent.
Iran maintains its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
A UN draft deal envisages that Iran would send its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for enrichment to 20 percent, and then returning it to Iran as fuel for a Tehran reactor. Iran says the reactor makes medical isotopes.
The comments by Ahmadinejad contradicted his earlier announcement that Iran was ready to send its low-enriched uranium for higher enrichment abroad. In an interview last week, the Iranian president has said he had "no problem" with such a plan.
The United States and other Western powers have been calling for a fourth round of UN sanctions on Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.
However, China and Russia are skeptical. Beijing has said it's too soon to discuss further sanctions.
compiled from agency reports