Iran declared yesterday that it has started work on producing a higher grade of enriched uranium, spurring an immediate call from the United States for "strong" new sanctions against Tehran in "weeks, not months". But even as Iran raised fears that it was heading towards a "nuclear breakout", it promised to abort the new process if the West supplied it with the fuel it insists it urgently needs for a medical research reactor.
Tehran's intentions remain unfathomable, given the flurry of conflicting signals it has sent in recent days and the opaque nature of the decision-making among the regime's divided leadership. Tehran could be indulging in carefully orchestrated brinkmanship aimed at persuading the West to renegotiate in Iran's favour a UN-brokered uranium fuel-swap deal that has been stalemated for the past four months, analysts said.
"Or maybe they don't want any deal at all and are trying to create a situation where the West is seen to have rejected their proposals so that it is only natural for them to further enrich their own uranium," a European former senior envoy to Tehran said, requesting anonymity. There are also strong suspicions that Iran's intention is to blunt the West's drive for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions, which are expected to target the Revolutionary Guards in particular.
If so, there were mixed results. Russia, traditionally opposed to tough action against Iran, a nominal ally, said the move raised "doubts" about Tehran's nuclear intentions, signalling that Moscow could agree to new sanctions. But China, a major trading partner that also has a veto at the UN Security Council, called for further talks. Turkey, meanwhile, announced that its foreign minister would visit Tehran immediately to seek a diplomatic solution.
Tehran says it needs uranium enriched to 20 per cent for use in the 42-year-old, US-built research reactor that produces medical isotopes for nearly a million cancer, kidney and heart patients. The West, however, is concerned that the process will accelerate the Islamic republic's ability to make bomb-grade nuclear fuel from its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), which has a purity of 3.5 per cent.
Although weapons-grade uranium is 90 per cent enriched, the first stages of the process are by far the most difficult and the jump to 90 per cent from 20 per cent is easily spanned, nuclear experts say. Iran has repeatedly rejected accusations that its nuclear programme is aimed at weapons development. Hours before announcing that it had started higher enrichment, Iran's atomic chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the process would be terminated if the West met its needs.
"Whenever they provide the fuel, we will halt production of 20 per cent," he told Iran's state television on Monday night. That message was reinforced yesterday by Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, who said: "The door is not closed yet. Anytime they [world powers] are ready, this [fuel deal] can be done." France, reflecting widespread western frustration with months of Iranian prevarication and vacillation, on Monday accused Tehran of "blackmail", and joined Washington in warning it will press for "strong" new UN sanctions.
Iran had agreed "in principle" to a deal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency in October to send about 75 per cent of its LEU stockpile to Russia in one batch for further refinement. France would then convert this into fuel rods to be returned to Tehran for use in its medical reactor. The accord, essentially a confidence-building measure, would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, according to experts, buying time for a comprehensive settlement of the seven-year-old dispute.
Iran was at pains yesterday to match its defiance with a show of transparency: Iranian media said the increased enrichment process at the Natanz facility would be supervised by the IAEA, which confirmed that it already had inspectors in place. Mr Salehi said a separate cascade of 164 centrifuges at Natanz can make between three kilograms to five kilograms of 20-per-cent enriched uranium a month for the Tehran reactor - about "twice" as much as needed. A nearby facility would then transform this into fuel plates, he added.
But nuclear experts say Iran does not have the technology to make the fuel rods - a process only France and Argentina have perfected - adding to western suspicions that Tehran's real aim is to master enrichment to produce weapons-grade fuel. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had initially appeared to welcome the IAEA-brokered deal, but then swiftly backtracked after it was attacked by his rivals across the political spectrum.
Subsequent Iranian counteroffers ruled out shipping the country's LEU abroad in one go, and were rejected by the West because they would not stall Tehran's ability to build a weapon. In an apparent about-face last week, Mr Ahmadinejad abruptly declared that he had "no problem" with the accord - only to go into reverse gear within days when his stance was again lambasted by hardline rivals. On Sunday, on live television, Mr Ahmadinejad theatrically ordered Mr Salehi to bump up the level of uranium enrichment.
Behind the president's volte-face may yet be another motive for Iran's nuclear gamesmanship. Weakened by his disputed re-election in June, Mr Ahmadinejad has an incentive for opportunistic muscle-flexing on the nuclear issue, analysts say. His jittery government is braced for huge opposition street protests on tomorrow's 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org