BEIRUT – Iran’s move on Tuesday to produce higher-grade uranium for a medical reactor prompted widespread international condemnation and an uncharacteristically harsh response by Russia, whose support is key to U.S. and Western efforts to impose tough new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
But the response by China, which like Russia wields a U.N. Security Council veto and maintains robust economic ties with Iran, was far more muted, suggesting a tough road ahead for the Obama administration and Western nations seeking to put pressure on Tehran.
Iranians in lab coats at the Natanz facility cried “God is great” as they transferred uranium from one capsule to another, presumably to begin the enrichment process, state television showed. But it was unclear from Iranian statements whether Iran had actually started higher-grade uranium or had only begun testing the process.
Tehran has said it will turn some of its uranium, currently enriched to 3.5 percent purity and suitable for generating electricity, into material of 20 percent purity necessary to power an ailing Tehran medical reactor. The West fears that Iran’s goal is to eventually produce even higher-grade uranium for weapons.
The Obama administration quickly condemned Iran’s move. “It’s provocative, and it deepens our concerns about what the Iran leadership’s intentions are,” said Philip Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman.
President Barack Obama said the administration and five other world powers are “moving along fairly quickly” to develop new sanctions on Iran to persuade it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. criticism of Iran’s latest move was echoed by Russian lawmakers, commentators and ranking officials.
“Iran says it doesn’t want to have nuclear weapons. But its actions, including its decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent, have raised doubts among other nations, and these doubts are quite well-founded,” Nikolai Patrushev, the nation’s security chief, told Russian news agencies.
“Political-diplomatic methods are important in the settlement, but everything has its limit and patience may come to an end.”
But Beijing, which has balked at even harshly rebuking Iran, continued to call for more diplomacy. “China hopes all relevant parties will step up diplomatic efforts and make progress in dialogue and negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a regular briefing on Tuesday, according to the official New China News Agency.
Low-enriched uranium that Iran currently possessed can power energy reactors, whereas uranium enriched at levels of 60 percent or higher can be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, told state-run media that inspectors from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency will observe the process of further refining the fuel, while Iranian diplomats continue to negotiate with the West over a U.N.-backed proposal for Iran to send its low-grade material to Russia in exchange for fuel plates made in France.