Iran plans to build 10 more nuclear plants

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As Iran moved to enrich uranium to a higher level of purity and build new nuclear-fuel plants, U.S. and French defense officials suggested Monday that sanctions were needed to force Tehran to curb its nuclear program.

Speaking in Paris, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates again dismissed military action but said that given Iran’s rejections of Western proposals, the international community needed to apply some pressure.

“We must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue. The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track,” Gates said, “but it will require all of the international community to work together.”

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency said his nation would begin enriching fuel for a Tehran medical reactor Tuesday, amid heightened international concern over Iran’s atomic research program and rising discord within its political system.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said Monday that Iran had informed inspectors that it intended to begin further refining its uranium.

“We will start this activity as of” Tuesday, he said. “We have invited agency inspectors to be present.”

Iranian officials trumpeted an array of new nuclear and military ambitions Monday ahead of Thursday’s anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, traditionally marked by a nationalistic pro-government festival. This year, Iran’s opposition movement has vowed to turn the event into an anti-government rally.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, announced that Tehran had informed the IAEA that it intended to begin construction of 10 nuclear fuel plants in the Persian calendar year that starts in March. Iranian military officials revealed plans to build military planes, aerial drones and antiaircraft missiles.

Experts and international inspectors have concluded that Iran’s nuclear program has been stagnant in the months since a political crisis erupted following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in June. The vote has been widely disputed in Iran.

Until now, Iran has produced reactor-grade 3.5%-enriched uranium and has built only one functioning nuclear-fuel plant near the town of Natanz.

Few experts believe it has the infrastructure to build 10 enrichment facilities any time soon. Iran also lacks a plant to turn enriched uranium into fuel plates for the medical reactor.

But Soltanieh said Iran operates a facility near the city of Isfahan that could be outfitted to produce the rectangular fuel plates for the Tehran medical reactor, which produces isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of serious illnesses.

Salehi said Tehran’s move was meant only to help cancer patients.

“We will stop enrichment as soon as we get the necessary fuel for the reactor,” he said.

Western diplomats have vowed to pursue tougher sanctions against Iran to pressure it into curbing sensitive components of its nuclear and missile programs that they allege are the cornerstones of an eventual atomic weapons capability.

They accuse Iran of failing to respond adequately to a U.N.-backed offer to transfer the bulk of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for 20%-enriched fuel plates.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said the international community has tried to engage in peaceful dialogue with Iran involving “full transparency.”

“It’s led to nothing,” Morin said, warning that if Iran didn’t stop, Western allies would pursue sanctions.

Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.