Two days after the world's atomic energy watchdog rebuked Iran over its nuclear program, the Islamic Republic's Cabinet on Sunday ordered a dramatic expansion of the program that would include 10 more nuclear plants.
If completed, the plan would provide Iran with enough enriched uranium to produce 20,000 megawatts of electricity within six years, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
But Iran's stated plans often don't square with its capabilities. The oil- and gas-rich Middle East nation of 70 million would need to overcome big economic and technical hurdles to mount so ambitious an expansion of its nuclear program. Currently, Iran has installed about 8,000 centrifuges, of which only about half are producing reactor-grade uranium.
Experts predicted Iran would have a tough time following through with the plan.
"If they actually mean it, given the pace of their production and installation of working centrifuges, we are looking at an extremely costly 20- or 30-year program, at best," said Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council during Iran's 1979 revolution. "Words are easy. Implementation is hard."
The plan calls for 10 plants on the scale of a current, industrial-sized facility in Natanz that holds 50,000 centrifuges.
Ahmad Shirzad, a Tehran nuclear scientist and frequent critic of the government, said Iran had neither the industrial ability to create 500,000 centrifuges nor the basic ingredients to operate them. He characterized the announcement as a "political decision to make an impression" on the international community.
"Viewing the industrial development in Iran for the time being, it is not feasible," he said. "Apart from that, we need lots and lots of raw materials, including uranium, many kinds of alloys and so on to be imported from abroad."
Such items could be very difficult for Iran to procure, given the sanctions in place to prevent it from obtaining so-called dual-use materials, which can be used for peaceful purposes, or to build weapons.
Ahmadinejad said the new facilities would incorporate new, more efficient centrifuges, which Iran has not yet employed.
"New high-capacity centrifuges have been designed by the Islamic Republic of Iran that can carry out the task in fewer numbers," he said. "We will use these new centrifuges as soon as they become operational."
The U.S. and its allies criticized Iran's announcement.
"If true, this would be yet another serious violation of Iran's clear obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and another example of Iran choosing to isolate itself," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that the international community recognizes Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program. "Instead of engaging with us, Iran chooses to provoke and dissemble," he said.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the U.S. and its allies fear that Iran is intent on building atomic weapons.
On Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors voted 25-3, with seven abstentions, to condemn Iran's nuclear program. The resolution called on Tehran to halt enrichment, resolve lingering questions about its nuclear activities, open its facilities to further inspection and provide assurances that it is not operating secret nuclear research and development sites.
Iran's parliament issued a statement Sunday asking the government to reduce its cooperation with the IAEA following the censure vote. But Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said the country would not pull out of its treaty obligations, which bar it from pursuing nuclear weapons.
"We pursue our rights and international obligations in equal measures," he said on the sidelines of the Cabinet meeting, according to Mehr.
Iran's assertion that the IAEA censure was politically motivated was bolstered by Egypt, which called the resolution "unbalanced" because it did not address Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons program.
"The resolution did not take into consideration the regional dimension in dealing with the Iranian nuclear dossier, as the resolution should [have] included a clear remark on the importance of dealing with the Israeli nuclear abilities and freeing the Middle East from nuclear weapons," said a statement from Egypt's Foreign Ministry. Cairo abstained from the board of governors' vote.
Uranium enriched to low levels can be used for producing electricity; it must be enriched to much higher levels to provide fuel for a weapon. The 500,000 centrifuges Iran envisions could theoretically produce enough fuel for a bomb every two days.
A U.S.-backed proposal calls on Iran to swap much of its current supply of 5% enriched uranium for 20% enriched fuel rods to operate a Tehran medical research plant. But Iranian officials have not given a definitive response, saying they want a guarantee that they will receive the fuel rods.
Ahmadinejad also said the government would begin studying the possibility of producing its own medical-grade fuel. Iran contends that the world powers are obliged to sell it the medical fuel rods as signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"We treat the entire world with kindness and friendship," Ahmadinejad said. "However, we are not joking around with anyone, and we do not allow the rights of the Iranian nation to be violated even by one iota."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.