WASHINGTON — Nuclear advances trumpeted Wednesday by Iran were not unexpected and their announcement may have been driven by domestic Iranian politics, but they still could add to tensions over that country's nuclear program, U.S. officials and experts said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the country had installed 3,000 new centrifuges for processing nuclear fuel, had for the first time successfully installed Iranian-produced fuel rods in a research reactor, and would embark next year on the production of yellow cake, a concentrated powder made from uranium ore and used in the enrichment process.
At the same time, Iran said that it would end oil sales to six European nations if they refuse to sign long-term contracts and move to implement an embargo on Iranian oil scheduled to take effect in July.
"We do not have any problem in terms of finding customers for our oil and selling it to other countries," the state-run news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry official, Hassan Tajik, as saying after meeting separately with the ambassadors of France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
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Iranian media portrayed the nuclear developments as showing that Iran has mastered the process that transforms uranium ore into low-enriched uranium, the fuel that powers nuclear reactors. The same process also produces highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
But David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said that "none of these (announcements) are a surprise." Other analysts pointed out that they came just two weeks before parliamentary polls and may be part of a bid by Ahmadinejad to boost his loyalists against archconservative candidates loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom Ahmadinejad has had a serious split.
"Iranians have endured tremendous hardships as a result of their government's nuclear intransigence, and the regime has to show to the public that there have been some benefits," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to international sanctions slapped on Iran for defying U.N. demands to halt its nuclear program.
The Obama administration also saw Ahmadinejad's announcements as aimed at diverting popular attention from the impact of U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions, which have begun choking Iran's access to hard cash and forced the devaluation of the Iranian rial.
"What's clear is that Iran is under more pressure from sanctions than ever before," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Still, the announcements are likely to increase tensions over the Iranian nuclear program as the U.S. presses for tougher economic sanctions amid mounting evidence that Iran is behind recent bombing attempts against Israeli diplomats. By making the series of announcements, Ahmadinejad seemed to be underscoring Iran's defiance of six U.N. resolutions since 2003 demanding that his country suspend its nuclear program.
Iran's latest announcements "can be seen in the context of the increasingly provocative rhetoric on both sides," said Valerie Lincey of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
The announcements also are likely to color how diplomats view Iran's response to a European Union invitation to new negotiations on its nuclear program. Iran accepted the proposal, a Western diplomat who'd read the response told McClatchy.
The diplomat, who asked not to be further identified because EU, U.S., Russian and Chinese officials were still studying the response, said that Iran didn't appear to be setting any conditions for its return to negotiations, which broke down in January 2011.
"It's a short letter, basically a simple letter saying they are open to talks," the diplomat said. "They simply request what they do all the time, they insist on their right to peaceful nuclear energy."
"We will assess the letter," he continued, adding that it had to be considered "in the context" of Wednesday's announcements.
"Our first reaction is that, indeed, they are feeling the pressure of the sanctions and they are trying something technical to alleviate that pressure. It remains to be seen if there is sincere openness (to resume negotiations) or just technical openness," the diplomat said.
Iran claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the United States and other powers charge that the program, hidden from U.N. inspectors for 18 years, is for building nuclear weapons.
Press TV, an English-language news network, quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that the 3,000 "new generation" centrifuges — high-speed spinning machines at the heart of the enrichment process — have been activated at Natanz, the main enrichment facility in central Iran.
The machines bring to 9,000 the number of centrifuges processing uranium at Natanz, and their activation will boost production by 50 percent, Ahmadinejad said.
Albright said he believed the 3,000 machines were of the IR-1 type, the Iranian version of a centrifuge designed by Pakistan and secretly sold to Iran by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
They were installed at the same time as the other 6,000 machines but for some reason had not been working, Albright said.
Ahmadinejad announced the activation of the new centrifuges while presiding at the insertion of the first indigenously made low-enriched uranium fuel assemblies into the Tehran Research Reactor, a device used to produce radioisotopes for medical purposes. While the event was presented with fanfare, Iran publicly announced in January that it had produced the assemblies.
The announcements came amid mounting tensions over the program. Iran has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which some 20 percent of global oil supplies pass, while Israel and the United States have refused to rule out military strikes to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Iran has accused Israel of murdering Iranian nuclear scientists, and this week Israel charged Iran with being behind bomb plots against Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan, India, Thailand and Georgia.
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