Iran launches next phase of nuclear project

As UN deadline nears, President says Tehran will not give up right to the technology, despite Western fears
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The Independent Online

Iran's hardline president declared Saturday that his nation's controversial nuclear program poses no threat to any other country, even Israel "which is a definite enemy."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke after inaugurating a heavy-water production plant, which went into operation despite U.N. demands that Iran roll back its nuclear program. Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, but Western countries fear it could eventually be used to develop a nuclear bomb.

During a speech, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran would never abandon its nuclear program and repeated that nuclear weapons is not the goal. "Basically, there is no talk of nuclear weapons. There is no discussion of nuclear weapons," he said. "We are not a threat to anybody even the Zionist regime, which is a definite enemy for the people of the region."

Iran is under a Thursday deadline established by the U.N. Security Council to suspend uranium enrichment or face political and economic sanctions. Tehran has called the Security Council's resolution that set the deadline "illegal" and has insisted it won't give up its nuclear program. Iran also responded on Tuesday to an incentives package presented by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Tehran said it would be open to negotiations but did not agree to the West's key demand for Tehran to halt uranium enrichment as a precondition to talks.

On Saturday, Ahmadinejad affirmed Iran's right to develop nuclear technology even if sanctions are imposed.

"They may impose some restrictions on us under pressure. But will they be able to prevent the thoughts of a nation? Will they be able to prevent the progress and technology to a nation? They have to accept the reality of a powerful, peace-loving and developed Iran. This is in the interest of all governments and all nations whether they like it or not," he said.

Despite Ahmadinejad's insistence Saturday that Iran is not a threat to Israel, one senior Israeli lawmaker said that the Jewish state must "prepare itself militarily." The Iranian president last year called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Israeli legislator Ephraim Sneh of the Labor Party, a partner in the ruling coalition, warned in a statement that Tehran's announcement concerning heavy-water production marks "another leap in Iran's advance toward a nuclear bomb." Though the West's main worry has been uranium enrichment, it also has called on Iran to stop the construction of a heavy-water reactor near the plant that Ahmadinejad inaugurated.

Iran has been a building the reactor for two years but is not scheduled to complete it until 2009. Nuclear weapons can be produced using either plutonium or highly enriched uranium as the explosive core. Either substance can be produced in the process of running a reactor. Reactors fueled by enriched uranium use regular - or "light" - water as a "moderator" in the chain reaction that produces energy. Reactors using "heavy water" contains a heavier hydrogen particle, which allow the reactor to run on natural uranium mined by Iran, forgoing the enrichment progress. But the spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor can be reprocessed to extract plutonium for use in a bomb.

Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the heavy-water plant's production is 16 tons of heavy water with a purity of 15 percent per year and 80 tons of heavy water with a purity of nearly 100 percent annually. He said the heavy-water facility will be used to treat AIDS and cancer and for other medicine and agricultural purposes. Mohammed Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's atomic organization, called the plant "one of the biggest nuclear projects" in the country, state-run television reported. The Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency will report on the state of Iran's program by mid-September. If IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's report finds that enrichment is continuing, the council is then likely to move toward sanctions.

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The plant is located at Khondab, a site near Arak, about 120 miles south-west of Tehran. The plant's plutonium by-product could be used to make atomic warheads but the reactor that would produce this from spent fuel is still being built. Heavy water is used in such a reactor.

The heavy-water project now has two units, each making eight tons a year of heavy water but output is to be raised to 80 tons a year, Iranian officials said. Work started in late 2003 or early 2004. The plant started up on 11 July 2006.

A top Iranian nuclear official said that, because heavy water itself had no military use, supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was not obligatory. UN inspectors have previously visited the site and another Iranian official said they would visit again next week.

Western diplomats say heavy-water production is not itself a proliferation risk but that launching the project now, in the midst of a stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, would not be viewed as a constructive gesture in the West.

A UN Security Council resolution passed on 31 July gave Iran 30 days to halt uranium enrichment, the West's main worry in its atomic programme. The resolution also cited an IAEA call for Iran to reconsider building its heavy-water reactor project.

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