WASHINGTON — Iran told the United Nations' nuclear watchdog Monday that it will begin producing purer uranium, a step that experts said could bring Tehran significantly closer to having the fuel for a nuclear weapon.
Iran plans to enrich uranium at its Natanz centrifuge plant to nearly 20 percent purity, a much purer form of the metal than it's achieved thus far, it informed the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
If Iran follows through, "it's a really bad development from a proliferation point of view," said David Albright, who closely follows Iran's nuclear development.
Albright, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said that Iran is three-quarters of the way to producing bomb-grade material from the 3.5 percent pure uranium it now has. Enriching its uranium to 19.75 percent purity, as Iran now has said it will do, "gets them another 20 percent or so" closer, he said.
Iran's decision appeared to kill for now the on-again, off-again deal that was reached in October to ship three-quarters of its nuclear fuel abroad to be refashioned for use in a civilian research reactor.
Iran's leaders insist that the country's nuclear work is for peaceful purposes, and even if the country had bomb-grade fuel, it would need to fashion a nuclear warhead and a means to deliver it to become a nuclear power. Western intelligence agencies say Iranian scientists have worked on both those problems.
Iran's declaration ratcheted up tensions with the U.S. and Europe as the Islamic Republic braces for clashes between security forces and opposition protesters on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the fall of the late Shah's regime in 1979.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that there's still a chance that economic sanctions will convince Iran's leaders to change course. He was responding to a question about whether he's concerned that Iran's announcement might provoke an Israeli airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Everybody's interest is in seeing this issue resolved without a resort to conflict," Gates said in Paris. "The key is persuading the Iranian leaders that their long-term best interests are best served by not having nuclear weapons . . . as long as the international community is seen pressing vigorously to resolve this problem, my hope is we will then be able to keep this in economic and diplomatic channels."
The U.S., France, Britain and Russia have been discussing a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran, but China, the other veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council, has balked, arguing that more negotiations are needed.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Iran's action is "a provocative move, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions."
"Unfortunately, it calls into question the Iranians' nuclear intentions because, by itself, their action makes no sense," he said.
Iran has said it needs the more-enriched uranium to fuel a Tehran research reactor that produces nuclear isotopes used to treat cancer patients. However, Crowley said, Iran has no way, on its own, to fabricate fuel rods for the reactor and guarantee an uninterrupted isotope supply.
In October, an Iranian envoy agreed in talks in Geneva to a deal that would have shipped most of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment. French technicians were then to have fabricated fuel rods that would be returned to Iran for medical use.
Iran since has tried to change the terms of the deal, and one senior U.S. official said that Monday's announcement isn't likely to be the final word, given the country's divided government and the profusion of statements coming from Tehran.
"Iran's leaders are all over the map. Is this posturing? Is it serious? It's hard to say," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Albright, the nuclear expert, said it's unlikely Iran could start the enhanced enrichment immediately, as its leaders have promised. However, despite technical problems with its centrifuges that enrich uranium, it has the capability to enrich to 19.75 percent, he said.
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