Iran's nuclear announcement seen as chest-puffing bluster

Analysts say Iran's plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities is chest-puffing bluster and a show of resolve by the president.

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Iran's announcement of plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities is chest-puffing bluster and a show of resolve by the president for a domestic and international audience, analysts said yesterday. By raising the stakes in the nuclear standoff, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "leapfrogging" the opposition at home amid political turmoil over his disputed re-election, a senior European former diplomat to Tehran who requested anonymity, said.

The head of Iran's nuclear programme, Ali Akbar Salehi, said yesterday that the plans to boost uranium enrichment capacity were retaliation for a resolution passed by the United Nations nuclear monitor last week. A demand by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran mothball a nuclear facility near Qom and halt enrichment "prompted the government to approve the plan", Mr Salehi said. "The West apparently does not want to understand Iran's message of peace."

The plan, unveiled by Mr Ahmadinejad's cabinet on Sunday, envisages Iran increasing its production of enriched uranium to up to 300 tonnes a year from just one tonne last year. Another senior Iranian official said yesterday that Tehran saw little benefit from its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Mr Ahmadinejad was attacked across the political spectrum for initially appearing to welcome a two-month-old UN-brokered deal designed to allay concerns that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at weapons development.

For Iran to build 10 industrial-scale enrichment plants would mean overcoming huge technical and economic hurdles: some experts say that no new sites could reasonably be expected to come on line for 20 to 30 years. Gary Sick, a leading Iran specialist at New York's Columbia University, said the uranium enrichment expansion plans were a "classic" and "blustery" response to the IAEA by Mr Ahmadinejad. "It is also the kind of ante-raising that one might expect in a negotiating game of 'chicken'," he wrote on his blog, Gary's Choices.

But the former diplomat said there was also a "strategic logic to setting up one or two more facilities after the Qom site got rumbled". He said in an interview: "This announcement could be a cover for something more that they're already working on." The Iranian plans were swiftly condemned internationally. Britain, France and Germany warned that Tehran would face more sanctions if it kept defying world powers. France said Iran was being a "bit childish", but warned Tehran was "playing a dangerous game".

Both the western powers and Iran left the door open to negotiations. The West has said new sanctions would not be considered before the end of the year. France, one of Iran's toughest critics, said Tehran should be given a "last chance" in talks over its nuclear programme, but must heed the IAEA warnings. In Iran, Ali Larijani, the influential parliamentary speaker, said the nuclear dispute could still be resolved through talks and that a diplomatic solution was in the West's interests. His remarks came with a thinly veiled warning that Iran could withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty. "I believe that their moves are harming the NPT the most - now whether you are a member of the NPT or pull out it has no difference."

By quitting the NPT, however, Iran would betray nuclear weapons ambitions - which Tehran denies having - and could provoke a pre-emptive attack by Israel and possibly the United States. Other Iranian officials have said Tehran has no intention to leave the NPT, under which its nuclear sites are subject to regular IAEA inspections. To blunt the threat of sanctions, Iran cannot alienate such countries as China, Brazil, Turkey and Egypt, "which have given it some moral support provided it keeps its nose clean with the IAEA", the European former diplomat said.

Tehran was furious that China and Russia, its nominal allies, had joined western powers in endorsing the IAEA resolution. Moscow said it was "seriously concerned by the latest statements of the Iranian leadership", but tried to cool tempers yesterday. "There is still good scope to continue co-operation," said the Russian energy minister, Sergei Shmatko, during a visit to Tehran. Russia also plans to start up a long-delayed nuclear power reactor at Bushehr in March, Reuters reported, citing sources closely involved in the project. That could calm Iran's anger with Moscow.

Tehran remains suspicious, however, that Russia, which began building the Bushehr plant in 1995, is using it as a lever with Iran and as a bargaining chip in dealing with the West. Even if Iran's plans to expand its uranium enrichment are more symbolic than realistic, its escalation of the nuclear standoff makes it increasingly difficult for Moscow and Beijing to help stave off further sanctions. The Iranian move also gives fuel to hawks in Israel and in Washington, where opponents of Barack Obama, the US president, have criticised his policy of outreach to the Islamic republic.

Iran's critics question why Tehran wants to produce huge amounts of low-enriched uranium when its only nuclear station, in Bushehr, is still under construction and its fuel will be supplied by Russia. "Why announce - a programme to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities when Iran doesn't have one single nuclear reactor to burn such fuel?" the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, asked.