Iran announces it has joined world's nuclear nations

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The Independent Online

The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said his country had joined the group of nations possessing nuclear technology in a move that is certain to aggravate Tehran's nuclear stand-off with the West.

"At this historic moment, with the blessings of God almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants on Sunday," the President said in a nationally-televised address yesterday.

Standing on a stage before military officers and clerics in the north-western holy city of Mashhad, he added: "I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries." It is the first time Iran has produced enriched uranium since resuming centrifuge work in February.

Even though Iran may still be some way from full industrial production of enriched uranium, the step, if it is confirmed, means the country has crossed a highly significant threshold towards achieving its ambition of harnessing nuclear technology.

Iran continues to insist it is pursuing the production of enriched uranium to enable it to begin nuclear power generation. The programme has triggered fears in Western nations, however, that Tehran's true ambition lies in making nuclear weapons.

The statement by President Ahmadinejad marks yet another escalation of the war of rhetoric between Iran and the West over his nuclear programme. In his speech, President Ahmadinejad called on the West not "to cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians" by trying to force Iran to give up enrichment.

A White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said: "If the regime continues to move in the direction that it is, then we will be talking about the way forward with the other members of the Security Council and Germany."

On Monday, President George Bush responded to news reports that the Pentagon was working on military options for punishing Iran, including possible strikes with nuclear bombs on its nuclear installations. He called the reports "wild speculation" and said that a diplomatic solution to the crisis remained America's first priority.

Efforts at the UN to define possible punishments for Iran foundered last month because of resistance from Russia and China. But the UN Security Council demanded that Iran cease uranium enrichment and gave it until 28 April to respond.

Iran's breakthrough was let slip earlier yesterday by the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. He told the Kuwait News Agency that: "Iran has put into operation the first unit of 164 centrifuges, has injected (uranium gas) and reached industrial production."

Last month, the UN's nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Iran had begun testing 20 centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The chief of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is due to visit Tehran tomorrow to seek ways of defusing the diplomatic crisis.

The 164 centrifuges mentioned by former president Rafsanjani constitutes one "cascade" of uranium production. Iran's scientists will need to bring about a dozen cascades on line before Iran can achieve actual nuclear power generation. About 1,500 cascades running non-stop for a year would be required to make a nuclear bomb. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile emphasised the significance of the visit to Tehran by Mr ElBaradei. Moscow is opposing calls by the US and Europe to threaten Iran with sanctions if it does not allow inspectors back into the country to monitor its nuclear activities.

"I am convinced that this visit will be productive and help advance the settlement of the outstanding issues in respect of the Iranian nuclear programme and help ensure IAEA monitoring of Iranian nuclear activities," Mr Lavrov said.