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Iran's enrichment plans prompt new sanction calls

By Alan Cowell and Thom Shanker

New York Times News Service

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 9 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

PARIS — Iran told the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency on Monday that it would begin enriching its stockpile of uranium for use in a medical reactor, prompting officials from the United States, France and Russia to call for stronger sanctions against Tehran.

Late Monday in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that it had received a letter from Iran declaring its intent to begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent. The agency's statement gave no date for starting the enrichment, though Tehran said that might come as early as Tuesday.

Tehran's decision elicited a sharp reaction in the West. In Paris, the visiting U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, said the Obama administration and its allies had done all they could to entice Iran to negotiate. "All of these initiatives have been rejected," he said. While "we must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue, " he said, "the only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track. But it will require all of the international community to work together."

Even in Russia, which, along with China, has consistently resisted sanctions against Iran, there were calls for stronger action against Tehran. Konstantin I. Kosachyov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian Parliament, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as urging the international community to prepare "serious measures."

At issue is a proposal for Iran to send its uranium stockpile outside the country to be enriched and processed into fuel rods for use in the medical reactor. This was attractive to the West because it would deprive Iran of stockpiles that it could convert into bomb fuel, while providing Tehran with fuel rods that would be very difficult to use in a weapon. Iran was reported last October to have accepted the proposal but later backed away. Western officials say Iran has rejected the deal, but Tehran accuses the West of failing to respond to its proposals.

If Russia does join the other world powers in backing President Barack Obama's call for tougher U.N. sanctions, that would isolate China, which has said such action could make finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis even more difficult.

The United States has begun circulating ideas for possible sanctions among its closest allies on the Security Council and is hoping that Iran's announcement might convince China that Tehran's real purpose is to create a weapon, and not the civilian use of nuclear energy.

Calling Iran's move provocative, a senior U.S. official said that the decision to enrich to 20 percent, if carried out, would suggest that Iran's "intentions are not as they stated." Iran's nuclear program is one of the most contentious issues between the West and Tehran, which asserts its right to a peaceful nuclear program and rejects Western suspicions that it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon. In recent days Iran has sent a perplexing series of conflicting signals.

In its letter to the nuclear agency, Iran set out a plan to begin enriching its stockpile to 20-percent purity, news reports said. That is high enough for use in the medical reactor but significantly lower than the 90 percent levels needed for weapons. The worry is that any effort to produce 20-percent enriched uranium would put the country in a position to produce weapons-grade uranium in a comparatively short time, nuclear experts say.

That is alarming to, among others, the Israeli leadership, which has called an Iranian nuclear weapon an "existential threat." It remains far from clear that Iran has the capacity to enrich fuel to the level ordered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently seeking to increase pressure on the West to reopen negotiations on providing fuel for the medical reactor on terms more favorable to Tehran.

Indeed, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted by Reuters as suggesting that Tehran's planned enrichment efforts would be halted if Iran received fuel enriched to 20 percent from abroad. He also said a previously announced plan to build 10 new enrichment plants would begin in the next Iranian year starting on March 21, Reuters reported.

In another development, The White House and European Union issued a statement Tuesday expressing concern about signs of a renewed crackdown by Tehran around the approaching anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic.

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