Reporting from Beirut — In a move likely meant to distract attention from his domestic political troubles, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday ordered the nation's atomic energy agency to begin enriching uranium from 3.5% to 20% purity to serve as fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.
"Please start 20% enrichment, though we are still in talks about a fuel exchange," he told Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi during a live television appearance. "We are ready for exchange. But if [the Western governments] don't like an exchange, we go our own way."
The West accuses Iran of dragging its feet in responding to a U.N.-backed proposal to exchange the bulk of its enriched uranium supply for reactor fuel plates for the Tehran medical reactor. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday he was doubtful Iran would agree to the deal. Tehran accuses the West of refusing to negotiate in good faith or address Iranian concerns about details of the deal.
Any move by Iran to produce 20% pure nuclear fuel supply would provoke Western nations and Israel, already suspicious that Tehran ultimately plans to build nuclear bombs, which require highly enriched uranium.
But Ahmadinejad's publicly aired command to increase Iran's enrichment levels was immediately downplayed by Salehi, who described it as an "alert order" meant to pressure the West into making a deal with the Islamic Republic.
"It means that the time is running out for the West to agree to swap fuel with Iran," he said. "We will definitely begin our 20% enrichment if the West hesitates. "
Furthermore, few experts believe that Iran mastered the laser enrichment technology Ahmadinejad said it would use to further refine the uranium. And even if it further enriched using the older centrifuge technologies Iran has mastered, only a handful of countries, including France and Argentina, have the industrial facilities to turn the material into the fuel plates necessary to power the ailing Tehran medical reactor.
During his presidency, Ahmadinejad has frequently sparked minor international crises to unify the country's squabbling political factions, reaping the domestic benefits of attacks on the Islamic Republic after he questioned the Holocaust or made claims about Iran's nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad now confronts his greatest domestic political challenge yet, with a grassroots opposition movement gearing up to confront him on the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution on Thursday and his conservative rivals sharpening their knives against him.
Despite a violent crackdown on dissidents and mass imprisonments of activists and journalists, opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have urged supporters to flood the streets on Feb. 11, the 22nd day of the Persian calendar month of Bahman, when Ahmadinejad is scheduled to deliver a speech at Tehran's Azadi Square.
This weekend, the Coordinating Council of Reform Front, a coalition that brings together 17 moderate political groups, called on supporters to head to the streets Thursday.
"We'll come to express our deep sorrow about the rigid-mindedness and narrow-mindedness of those who hold the power and describe any protester and critic as foreign agents," said the announcement. "We'll call for return to ideals and principles instead of jail, violence and confrontation with the nation."
Security forces are gearing up for confrontations. Plainclothes gunmen with suspected ties to the shadowy figures inside the security establishment shot dead Mousavi's nephew during Dec. 27 demonstrations coinciding the Shiite Muslim holiday Ashura.
Gen. Ahmad-Reza Radan, second-in-command of the Iranian police, told Revolutionary Guard officers, pro-government Basiji militiamen and police commanders Sunday to "drive the last nail into the coffin of seditionists" Thursday.