In a possible move to deflect attention from Iran’s political woes, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday ordered the nation’s atomic energy agency to begin enriching uranium from 3.5 percent to 20 percent purity to serve as fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.
“Please start 20 percent 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.
Tehran accuses the West of refusing to negotiate in good faith or to address Iranian concerns about details of the deal.
With talks faltering, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Rome on Sunday that Washington and its allies would consider new sanctions to pressure Iran into curbing aspects 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 Italy, where he has been meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa.
But any move by Iran to produce a 20 percent enriched nuclear fuel supply would provoke Western nations and Israel, which suspect Tehran ultimately plans to build nuclear bombs, which require highly enriched uranium.
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 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 percent enrichment if the West hesitates.”
Furthermore, few experts believe Iran has mastered the laser-enrichment technology Ahmadinejad says it would use to further enrich the uranium. And even if it were to use its older centrifuge technologies, 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 frequently has sparked minor international crises to unify the country’s squabbling political factions, reaping the domestic benefits of 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 on Thursday and his conservative rivals sharpening their knives against him.
Despite a violent crackdown on dissidents and mass imprisonment 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,” the announcement said. “We’ll call for a return to ideals and principles instead of jail, violence and confrontation with the nation.”
Security forces are gearing up for confrontations. Plainclothes gunmen shot and killed Mousavi’s nephew during Dec. 27 demonstrations coinciding with 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.
Gates and other Western officials say any new sanctions on Iran would target the country’s hard-line leaders only.
“Pressures that are focused on the government, as opposed to the people of Iran, potentially have greater opportunity to achieve objectives,” Gates said. “The international community does not want the Iranian people to suffer more hardship than is absolutely necessary.”