Iran began enriching uranium at a fortified nuclear site, the International Atomic Energy Agency said, a move that drew U.S. and France’s condemnation and may accelerate the imposition of stricter sanctions on the country.
“Iran has started the production of uranium enriched up to 20 percent” in the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant, IAEA spokesman Gill Tudor said in an e-mail yesterday. “All nuclear material in the facility remains under the agency’s containment and surveillance.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the enrichment represented an intensification of Iranian violations of United Nations agreements on its nuclear program and called on Iran to suspend its enrichment activities.
“This is a further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations,” Nuland said yesterday.
France said it “condemns in the strongest possible terms,” the production of enriched uranium at the Qom facility and is calling for additional sanctions of an “unprecedented severity” to be imposed on Iran, the deputy spokesman at the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
IAEA inspectors conduct safeguard inspections of the facility in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. Western intelligence reports revealed in 2009 the existence of the plant, built into the side of a mountain south of Tehran, the capital, raising concerns about its purpose.
Iranian officials announced in June plans to install an initial series of centrifuges at the Fordo nuclear facility within “months” and said they already informed the IAEA about the project.
“The worry was that it would be this covert enrichment site that would allow Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium fairly quickly without anyone knowing it was taking place,” David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit group, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
The IAEA has asked Iran to clarify the circumstances that led to the plant’s construction.
Nuland said Iran was taking the “next step” and couldn’t have civilian uses in mind.
“When you enrich to 20 percent there’s no possible use if you’re talking about a peaceful purpose,” Nuland said. “You’re enriching to a level that takes you to a different kind of nuclear program.”
UN Deal Failure
Iran began processing low-enriched uranium to 20 percent purity two years ago as a deal brokered in 2009 by the United Nations for the delivery of the fuel failed to materialize.
While Iran says it needs the enriched uranium for civilian use in a medical research reactor, Albright said Iran has already produced enough such fuel to serve that purpose for several years.
Stockpiling 20 percent enriched uranium would make it that much easier to get to the next step of 60 percent, and from there to 90 percent enrichment that is ideal for creating weapons, Albright said.
“So that if they do decide they want nuclear weapons, it’s easy to do,” he said.
The activities at Fordo would let Iran “build nuclear weapons relatively quickly and in facilities that are relatively hard to destroy militarily,” Albright said.
Iran has repeatedly denied any ambition to build a nuclear weapons program. Nuland said the U.S. was open to talks with Iran if it would “come clean” about its nuclear program.
Tensions between Iran and the West have escalated as the U.S. moves to sanction Iran’s central bank and the European Union considers an embargo on Iranian oil.
The European Union are considering bringing forward a meeting of foreign ministers to Jan. 23, from Jan. 30, that will discuss a possible embargo on imports of Iranian oil, an EU diplomat, who declined to be identified, citing government policy, said yesterday.
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said on Dec. 27 that his nation would block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed, the Islamic Republic News Agency said. The Strait is a transit point for one fifth of oil traded worldwide.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said moves on additional sanctions “must be timed and phased” to avoid damage to oil markets.