Iran Vows to Boost Uranium Program

Iran's deputy nuclear chief said Wednesday that the country intended to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges, signaling the country's resolve to expand a program the United Nations has demanded it halt.

Russia joined Britain, Germany, France and the United States in criticizing Iran after its president said Tehran had successfully enriched uranium for the first time, a potential step toward developing a nuclear weapon.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a nationally televised ceremony on Tueday that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium on a small scale for the first time, using 164 centrifuges, at a facility in the central town of Natanz.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, was heading to Iran on Wednesday for talks aimed at resolving the standoff. The timing of the announcement suggested Iran wanted to present him with a fait accompli and argue that it could not be expected to entirely give up a program showing progress.

Iran has pushed for further negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has previously hinted it might agree to stick to a small-scale enrichment program as a compromise.

But the deputy nuclear chief, Mohammad Saeedi, said Wednesday that Iran intended to build up the program. "We will expand uranium enrichment to industrial scale at Natanz," Saeedi told state-run television.

He said Iran had informed the IAEA that it planned to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by late 2006 and that it would then expand to 54,000 centrifuges, though he did not say when.

He said that by using 54,000 centrifuges Iran would be able to produce enough enriched uranium to provide fuel for a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant like the one Russia is currently putting the finishing touches on in southern Iran.

The United States estimates that it will take 50,000 centrifuges just 16 days to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear warhead in Iran, Stephen Rademaker, acting assistant U.S. secretary of state for arms control, told reporters in Moscow. He said 3,000 centrifuges would do the same work in 271 days, while the current number of 164 centrifuges would do it in 13.2 years.

Rademaker called the Iranian announcement "deeply disappointing" but reaffirmed Washington's continuing commitment to diplomacy.

Iran's ally Russia joined in the criticism of Iran's uranium activities.

"We believe that this step is wrong. It runs counter to decisions of the IAEA and resolutions of the UN Security Council," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said.

However, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against dramatizing the situation and reiterated Moscow's firm opposition to any military action against Iran.

"I wouldn't rush into any hasty conclusions, as tensions are raised too often around Iran's nuclear program," he said.

The UN Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all enrichment by April 28 because of suspicions the program, which Tehran maintains is peaceful, is designed to make nuclear weapons.

Uranium enrichment can produce either fuel for a nuclear energy reactor -- as Iran says it seeks -- or the material needed for an atomic warhead.

The United States and the European Union are pressing for the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iran.

However, Tehran's close commercial partners Russia and China -- both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council -- have opposed such a step.