TEHRAN, Iran—Iran claimed on Tuesday to have enriched uranium to a level suitable for civilian power plants, defying a U.N. Security Council demand that it halt work on the process, which also can be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
"Iran has joined the club of nuclear nations," declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a nationally televised speech.
The announcement was certain to heat up the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
The Bush administration warned that unless Tehran complied with the Security Council's directive, it would open discussions on further steps to pressure and isolate Iran.
"If the regime continues to move in the direction that it is currently, then we will be talking about the way forward with the other members of the Security Council and Germany," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"Everyone agrees that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormick, who added that the "isolation of the Iranian people, if the regime continues to move forward, will become more and more acute."
U.S. officials said, however, that there was no independent confirmation of Iran's claim. Some experts cautioned against overreacting, saying they doubted that more than a minuscule amount of low-enriched uranium was produced. These experts said the announcement seemed to signal that the Islamic regime would tell Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency who was to visit Iran later this week, that Iran doesn't intend to heed the Security Council.
"This bombastic announcement is open defiance of what the international community is asking from Iran," said David Albright, a former inspector for the U.N. agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency. He heads the Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks the Iranian program.
ElBaradei must report back to the Security Council by April 28 on whether Iran has halted its enrichment work.
The Security Council, which can impose sanctions, also wants Iran to disclose all aspects of its program, including details of deals with a Pakistani-led smuggling ring for know-how that can be used only for nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration estimates publicly that Iran is at least five years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
Enrichment is a process that uses networks of machine centrifuges, which spin uranium hexafluoride gas into low-enriched uranium for civilian power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons fuel, depending on the duration of the process.
In his speech, Ahmadinejad said that the Islamic regime intends to move ahead with a plan to build an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, Iran.
He insisted anew that Iran isn't seeking nuclear weapons but is exercising its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the bedrock accord of the global system to stem the spread of nuclear arms—to enrich uranium for civilian power plants.
"Based on international regulations, we will continue our path until we achieve production of industrial-scale enrichment," Ahmadinejad said.
Iran, however, concealed its program from the IAEA for 18 years and has admitted purchasing technology and know-how from the smuggling ring led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program.
The United States and European governments believe that Iran is using its civilian uranium enrichment program as a cover for a secret nuclear weapons effort.
The IAEA has said it can't confirm the peaceful nature of the Iranian program because of Tehran's failure to answer key questions. In March, the agency's board of governors voted to refer the matter to the Security Council.
Before Ahmadinejad's speech, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads the Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization, said experts successfully enriched uranium to 3.5 percent using a network—or cascade—of 164 centrifuges at Natanz, state-run media reported.
That level of enrichment is far below the level required for a nuclear weapon.
U.S. experts said Ahmadinejad's announcement wasn't unexpected and that the Iranians still had a considerable ways to go in mastering the ability to run industrial-scale cascades of tens of thousands of centrifuges.
"It's a significant technological achievement," said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've shown that they can run a small number of centrifuges for a few days. What they need to do is run thousands for months. That is a significant engineering challenge. Very small mistakes can lead to catastrophe."
Ahmadinejad's speech was broadcast live from the ornate Imam Reza library in the holy city of Mashad, where Iran's top politicians and clerics watched a video montage of nuclear facilities as dramatic music played in the background. The Quran, the Islamic holy book, was read, a boys' choir sang the national anthem, and dancers wearing the dress of Iran's ethnicities chanted "God is great."
Several U.S. and Iranian experts said they expected Tehran to use the step forward in enrichment as new leverage to wring concessions from the United States and its European allies. The United States and these allies have rejected any compromise that allows Iran to retain any enrichment capability.
Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said he expects Tuesday's political fanfare will soon be followed by another announcement suspending all enrichment activities, as requested by the IAEA. Such a move, Laylaz said, would be a savvy way for all sides to save face and avoid escalating the crisis.
"They wanted this big ceremony to show that nuclear technology is not a goal—it's an achievement. This is enough, and now we can go back to negotiations," he said.
But others saw the announcement as a rebuff of the Security Council's demands and a response to Bush's refusal to discard the option of U.S. military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld refused to be drawn out on the state of contingency planning for a possible military attack. He said he wouldn't engage in "fantasyland" speculation over a spate of reports last weekend that said the Pentagon was drawing up options.
Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown and special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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