KHONDAB, Iran – Iran inaugurated a heavy-water plant Saturday, expanding its nuclear program only days before a U.N. deadline that threatens sanctions unless Tehran curbs activities the West fears are meant to make atomic weapons.
The move was the latest defiance by Iran to concerns expressed by the U.N. Security Council. Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shrugged off the possibility of sanctions, insisting his country would not slow its nuclear ambitions.
“We tell the Western countries not to cause trouble for themselves because Iranian people are determined to make progress and acquire technology,” Ahmadinejad said after opening the plant.
He stressed his government’s contention that the nuclear program is peaceful – intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that would generate electricity. The U.S. and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to develop atomic arms.
“There is no discussion of nuclear weapons. We are not a threat to anybody, even the Zionist regime (Israel), which is a definite enemy to the people of the region,” said Ahmadinejad, who has drawn strong international criticism for saying Israel should be wiped off the map.
The Security Council has given Iran until Thursday to suspend another part of its nuclear program – the enrichment of uranium, which can produce both reactor fuel and material usable in nuclear warheads.
Iran said earlier in the week it is open to negotiations but it refused any immediate suspension, calling the deadline illegal.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is to report to the council on Iran’s program by mid-September. If IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei’s report finds enrichment is continuing, the United States and some in Europe are likely to push for sanctions.
Tehran appears to be counting on sanctions being blocked by its allies in Russia and China, major trade partners that as permanent members of the council hold veto power over its actions.
Russian Vice Premier Sergei Ivanov said Friday that it was too early to consider imposing sanctions.
The ceremony at the Khondab heavy-water plant, which has been operating since 2004, was largely a symbolic gesture underlining Iran’s determination to ignore international pressure. The plant’s top official, Manouchehr Madadi, said the facility can produce up to 16 tons of heavy water a year – double the amount it previously made.
The U.N. deadline does not demand a halt to operations at the plant or a nearby reactor that Iran is building to use the heavy water, focusing on what is seen as the more urgent concern of uranium enrichment.
Still, the West repeatedly has called on Iran to stop work at the heavy-water facility, fearing it could be used as a second track toward building warhead.