Iran Starts Uranium Enrichment at Fordo Plant, Kayhan Says

Iran has started to enrich uranium at its Fordo production facility, the official Kayhan newspaper reported without saying where it got the information.

Iran will soon have a ceremony to open the site officially, the newspaper reported, citing the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi. The Iranian nuclear chief was cited yesterday by Mehr News as saying that the underground facility “will start operating in the near future.”

The existence of the Fordo plant, built into the side of a mountain near the Muslim holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, was disclosed in September 2009, heightening concern among the U.S. and its allies who say Iran’s activities may be a cover for the development of atomic weapons. The Persian Gulf country has rejected the allegation, saying it needs nuclear technology to secure energy for its growing population.

In September, Abbasi said he expected Iran to inaugurate its Fordo uranium production within six months. The plant will produce uranium enriched to 20 percent, he said at a press conference in Vienna. Three months later, the Obama administration expressed concern that Iran was on the verge of enriching uranium.

Iran has pressed ahead with its nuclear program even as international pressure increases to prevent the Islamic republic from building an atomic weapon.

The U.S. tightened economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program on Dec. 31, and the European Union is weighing a ban later this month on purchases of Iranian crude.

Iran threatened last month to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a transit point for a fifth of oil traded worldwide, if sanctions are imposed on its crude exports in response to its nuclear program. Iran held 10 days of naval maneuvers east of the strait ending Jan. 3.

The country plans even bigger military maneuvers in the area next month, the state-run Fars news agency reported on Jan. 5.

Brent crude futures have risen 5 percent so far this month to $113 a barrel.

U.S. sanctions imposed last year seek to cut off dealings with Iran’s banking system, making it difficult for consumers to buy the country’s oil.

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