Iran claimed yesterday it could now use domestically mined uranium to produce nuclear fuel, giving the country complete control over a process the West suspects is geared toward producing weapons.
Tehran made the claim a day before a new round of nuclear talks with world powers that want to rein in Iran's uranium enrichment – a process that can be used either to make fuel for nuclear energy or nuclear weapons.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, said the country had for the first time delivered domestically mined raw uranium to a processing facility – allowing it to bypass UN sanctions prohibiting the importation of the material. Four rounds of UN sanctions have targeted Iran's uranium enrichment program.
Mr Salehi said the uranium ore concentrate, known as yellowcake, was produced at the Gachin uranium mine in southern Iran and delivered to the uranium conversion facility in the central city of Isfahan for reprocessing.
Salehi said the delivery was evidence that last week's mysterious bombings targeting two Iranian nuclear scientists would not slow the country's progress. One of the scientists died and another was wounded.
"Today, we witnessed the shipment of the first domestically produced yellowcake ... from Gachin mine to the Isfahan nuclear facility," said Salehi, speaking live on state television.
The four sets of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran forbid the supply of nuclear materials to Tehran.
In 2009, Western nations claimed Iran was running out of raw uranium for its nuclear program. Tehran denied it but in recent years sought to extract uranium from its own deposits.
Iran acquired a considerable stock of yellowcake from South Africa in the 1970s under the former shah's original nuclear program, as well as unspecified quantities of yellowcake obtained from China before the UN sanctions.
Salehi, who is also the country's vice president, said the step meant Iran was now self-sufficient over the entire nuclear fuel cycle – from extracting uranium ore to enriching it and producing nuclear fuel. He added that the message to those meeting with Iran in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday was that they cannot stop Iran's nuclear work.
"No matter how much effort they put into their sanctions ... our nuclear activities will proceed and they will witness greater achievements in future," he said in an interview with state-run Press TV after the announcement.
Salehi said the activity will be carried out under the supervision of the UN nuclear watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Iran's Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi on Saturday accused the IAEA of sending spies in the guise of inspectors to collect information about Iran's nuclear activities. Five hardline student groups called on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop co-operating with the UN nuclear watchdog agency for so-called "spying" on Iran. They called it the "International Atomic Espionage Agency".
Iran's nuclear chief said a bigger uranium mine at Saghand, central Iran, will open "in the not-too-distant future".