TEHRAN, Iran – Iran approved plans Sunday to build 10 industrial-scale uranium enrichment facilities, a dramatic expansion of the program in defiance of U.N. demands it halt enrichment and a move that is likely to significantly heighten tensions with the West.
The decision comes only days after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency censured Iran over its program and demanded it halt the construction of a newly revealed enrichment facility. The West has signaled it is running out of patience with Iran’s continuing enrichment and its balking at a U.N. deal aimed at ensuring Tehran cannot build a nuclear weapon in the near-term future. The U.S. and its allies have hinted at new U.N. sanctions if Iran does not respond.
The White House said the move “would be yet another serious violation of Iran’s clear obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and another example of Iran choosing to isolate itself.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband described Iran’s move as a provocation.
“This epitomizes the fundamental problem that we face with Iran,” he said. “We have stated over and again that we recognize Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program, but they must restore international confidence in their intentions. Instead of engaging with us Iran chooses to provoke and dissemble.”
On Friday, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency issued a strong rebuke of Iran over enrichment, infuriating Tehran. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani threatened on Sunday to reduce cooperation with the IAEA.
“Should the West continue to pressure us, the legislature can reconsider the level of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA,” Larijani told parliament.
Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also Iran’s nuclear chief, said Sunday’s decision was “a firm message” in response to the IAEA. He told state TV that the agency’s censure was a challenge aimed at “measuring the resistance of the Iranian nation.”
Any new enrichment plants would take years to build and stock with centrifuges. But the ambitious plans were a bold show by Iran that it is willing to risk further sanctions and won’t back down amid a deadlock in negotiation attempts.
Iran currently has one operating enrichment facility, at the central town of Natanz, which has churned out around 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium over the past years – enough to build a nuclear weapon if Iran enriches it to a higher level. Iran says it has no intention of doing so, insisting its nuclear program aims only to generate electricity.
On Sunday, a Cabinet meeting headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin building five uranium enrichment plants at sites that have already been studied and propose five other locations for future construction within two months, the state news agency IRNA reported. All would be at the same scale as Natanz.
The new sites are to be built inside mountains to protect them from possible attacks, said Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief. They will also use a new generation of more efficient and more productive centrifuges that Iran has been working to construct, he and Ahmadinejad said.