Reporting from Rome and Beirut — In a move possibly meant to deflect attention from his domestic political woes, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday ordered the nation's atomic energy agency to begin enriching uranium to a higher level of purity to serve as fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.
The command to enrich uranium from 3.5% to 20% purity comes amid Iran's diplomatic impasse with the United States and its allies over a proposal to exchange nuclear fuel that the international community hopes would slow the development of Tehran's nuclear capabilities.
"Please start 20% enrichment, though we are still in talks about a fuel exchange," Ahmadinejad 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 the United Nations-backed proposal to exchange the bulk of Tehran's low-level enriched uranium supply for further refined fuel plates that could power the medical reactor.
Tehran accuses the West of refusing to negotiate in good faith or to address Iranian concerns about aspects of the deal.
With talks faltering, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that Washington and its allies would consider new sanctions to pressure Iran into curbing parts of its nuclear program.
"If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work," Gates said at a news conference in Rome, where he has been meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa.
Any move by Iran to produce a 20%-enriched nuclear fuel supply could provoke Western nations and Israel, which allege that Tehran ultimately plans to build atomic bombs. Uranium enriched at the current 3.5% level can fuel civilian power plants; moves toward enriching it beyond 20% could suggest a goal of making weapons.
Experts say Iran would have to overcome several hurdles to create its own fuel for the medical reactor. Even if it enriched nuclear fuel to 20%, only France and Argentina have the facilities to turn the material into the fuel plates for the reactor, they say.
Ahmadinejad's enrichment command was immediately downplayed by Salehi, who described it as an "alert order" meant to spur the West to make 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."
He later told state television that Iran would inform the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday that it intended to begin preparations Tuesday to enrich uranium to higher levels.
During his presidency, Ahmadinejad frequently has sparked minor international crises to unify Iran's squabbling political factions, reaping benefits domestically from attacks on the Islamic Republic after he has questioned the Holocaust or made claims about Iran's nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad is facing his greatest domestic political challenge yet, with a grass-roots opposition movement gearing up for confrontation on the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution this week and his conservative rivals sharpening their knives against him.
Despite a violent crackdown on dissidents, opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have urged supporters to flood the streets Thursday, when Ahmadinejad is to deliver a speech at Tehran's Azadi Square commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic.