Iran defies UN to join nuclear club
The Independent UK
By Angus McDowall in Natanz
Iran announced yesterday that it has taken a step forward in its nuclear programme by moving to industrial scale enrichment, thereby defying three United Nations resolutions and setting itself on a collision course with the United States.
At an extraordinary ceremony to celebrate Iran's now-annual "nuclear technology day", President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: "With great honour, I declare that as of today our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale."
The ceremony, which was broadcast on national television, was attended by cabinet and security officials, who sat in front of a large dais at the end of the hall, where an orchestra played first the national anthem, and later a rousing "nuclear symphony". A poem was recited extolling the glories of God's creation - religious code for scientific progress.
Later Iranian officials refused to specify to journalists the number of centrifuges they've begun operating, a key indicator of how far their nuclear weapons programme has progressed, leading some diplomats to query whether the claim might be at least partly a bluff.
But coming just two weeks after a UN resolution that increased sanctions on Iran over its nuclear plans, the move will be interpreted as a sign that Tehran is committed to accelerating its programme whatever the cost. The 12-day confrontation with the UK over its capture of British sailors and marines now looks deliberately calibrated to demonstrate this resolve.
Speaking in Natanz in west-central Iran, where the country's main enrichment facility is located, Mr Ahmadinejad delivered a rambling speech incorporating religion, national history and the dream of technical progress. He also repeated threats that Iran could withdraw from international nuclear agreements if it was pressed too hard by Western powers. "We have been oppressed by powers that themselves make use of nuclear energy, yet try to oppose us," he said. "The security council decisions will show how far they are committed to international rights and justice."
An official later confirmed that Iran had started putting hexaflouride gas into 3,000 centrifuges, the process that can be used to make nuclear fuel - or supply the warhead of an atomic missile. Experts say 1,500 centrifuges spinning full time could produce enough material for a bomb within a year. But the process of testing and fine-tuning these units can last far longer.
Even then, Iran would be far from able to use the material for a bomb. The UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, still has to verify the move. In the past, announcements of some advances have proved premature - and the programme is believed to be fraught with technical problems.
Conducted in Natanz, perhaps the most sensitive of all Iran's nuclear facilities, the ceremony was peculiar in itself. A motif of butterflies and moths lined the corridor to the large conference room alongside slogans such as "Nuclear energy is national capital", "Sustainable energy!".
Underground is a system of bunkers where, if Iran has its way, tens of thousands of centrifuges will one day spin hexaflouride gas into uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power station on the Persian Gulf coast. Western countries believe this plant has a more sinister purpose: the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. On the surface there is little sign of this subterranean world: but enormous piles of earth are heaped like slag near the site. Reporters were not invited to examine what went on below.
This was one of the first times journalists have even been allowed into the compound. If it were not for the heavy military presence, the site could look like a university campus, with its large institutional buildings and grass-fringed roads. It is certainly well-equipped, with its own guesthouse, restaurant, bakery, petrol station - and even a barber's shop.
Little effort has been made to disguise the location - or the purpose - of this facility. When they travel from Kashan, workers at the site tell the bus driver to let them off at "the nuclear station", a request that has purportedly been common since long before Iran's enrichment programme was made public in 2001.
The conscripts manning the anti-aircraft batteries looked ridiculously young. A group of 10were kicking a football about in the shadow of their gun turret. Nearby, security men in dark suits spoke into walkie-talkies as they marshalled diplomats and journalists through barriers. Just outside the gates sat a Russian-made tank, with a rotating satellite dish on top.
To the east is the Dasht-Kavir desert, which stretches to Afghanistan. The site, about 20 kilometres north of the town of Natanz, sits against jagged mountains that are still capped with snow. Yesterday morning storm clouds floated low overhead and a harsh wind scattered flocks of sparrows before suddenly giving way to blue skies and real desert heat. This desolate place clearly has weather as volatile as the political climate.
About 50 kilometres to the north, the garden of Bagh-e Fin is sheltered from the desert with high mud walls. Its 16th century pavillions and towering cyprus and mulberry trees are one of the purest expressions of the high Persian culture officials often cite as the background to the country's drive towards nuclear technology. And even in this bastion of tradition, the atomic age is hailed by local people.
"Of course we all want nuclear energy," the waiter at a teahouse where a cleric was instructing a group of young girls said. "It is for future generations because our oil will one day run out. What right have the Americans to use nuclear energy and save their oil, while we have to sell all ours and cannot use alternative power?"
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