TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday announced success in Iran's efforts to enrich uranium and he demanded respect for the nation's right to peaceful atomic energy, upping the ante in Tehran's dispute with the West about its nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials said the country's scientists had enriched uranium to the level needed for civilian purposes using 164 linked centrifuges and intended to increase the number of linked centrifuges to 3,000 by year's end.
Western countries suspect that Iran's ultimate goal is to make highly enriched uranium for an atomic bomb and have been insisting that Iran suspend its enrichment program, but with Tuesday's announcement, it will probably be harder to persuade Tehran to stop.
Iran's declaration is a key political achievement for the country as well as a technological milestone. However, Tehran is probably still years away from having enough low enriched uranium for power plants or the highly enriched uranium necessary to build nuclear bombs, diplomats and nuclear analysts said. Estimates are that it could take Iran from as little as three years to as long as 10 years to build a bomb.
The Bush administration sharply criticized the Iranian announcement, saying Tehran had "chosen the pathway of defiance" in the face of United Nations demands that Iran stop uranium enrichment altogether.
"I announce that our beloved Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world," Ahmadinejad told a formal gathering of some of the country's top civilian and military leaders in the northeastern city of Mashhad, which he was visiting. "The nuclear fuel cycle has been completed at the laboratory level and uranium has been produced with suitable degree of enrichment for use in nuclear power plants.... This is the result of the Iranian nation's resistance."
His announcement, made with much fanfare, appeared designed to burnish Iran's image as a scientifically advanced country and bolster Ahmadinejad's standing at home.
Hamid Reza Taraghi, a senior aide to Ahmadinejad, said Iran no longer needed to negotiate and was handing Western powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency a fait accompli.
"I believe there is no longer any need for negotiations. All we need to discuss with [IAEA chief Mohamed] ElBaradei is to ensure continued cooperation of the IAEA in its observer capacity to confirm that our activities are peaceful in the purposes," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Marking the occasion was a joyful religious performance, rare in a country accustomed to more somber rites: A group of men wearing ethnic clothing danced to upbeat chants of "God is great!" They waved a small box containing a sample of uranium yellowcake, treated uranium ore used in the production of uranium hexafluoride gas that in turn is spun into enriched uranium, and presented it to the museum of the shrine of the eighth Shiite imam in Mashhad, a pilgrimage city.
"We will continue our path until we achieve production of industrial-scale enrichment," Ahmadinejad said, adding that the West must respect Iran's right to atomic technology.
Thousands of centrifuges, operating in cascades, are needed for large-scale production. Uranium gas enriched to a low level can be used to generate electricity. If technological adjustments are made and the gas is further processed, the result is highly enriched uranium, which can be used in a bomb.
There was no independent verification of Iran's announcement, but it is widely believed to be true in the nuclear community. Inspectors for the IAEA who have been at the enrichment site in Natanz and elsewhere in Iran for the last several days will report directly to ElBaradei when he arrives in Tehran on Thursday, IAEA officials said.
The IAEA reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council in February, and at the end of March the council asked ElBaradei to report back in 30 days on Iran's compliance with demands that it cease all uranium enrichment and allow a stiffer inspection regime. With Tuesday's announcement, Tehran clearly flouted the council demand that it cease enrichment activity.
Experts cautioned that the Iranian announcement was no proof that Tehran had any intention of building an atomic weapon. In any case, to make enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, a cascade of 2,000 to 3,000 centrifuges would have to be operated for at least a year.
Operating a centrifuge cascade briefly to make a few grams of low enriched uranium is much easier than keeping a delicate and far larger centrifuge cascade operating properly for weeks or months. Iran began enrichment Monday, said the head of Iran's civilian Atomic Energy Organization.
"This shouldn't be seen as a shock, they've been steadily progressing towards this," said a senior official in Vienna close to the IAEA. "It should be depicted with caveats: If they've enriched for five minutes it's one thing, if you have major enrichment it's another. But certainly it's a technical milestone."