World Criticism Mounts Over Iran's Nuclear Step
Parisa Hafezi, Reuters:
Russia and the European Union joined the United States on Wednesday in condemning Iran's assertion that it had enriched uranium in defiance of a U.N. demand, but Moscow said force could not resolve the dispute.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on Tuesday that Iran had enriched uranium for the first time and would now press ahead with industrial-scale enrichment.
His triumphant announcement keeps the Islamic Republic on a collision course with the United Nations and with Western countries convinced that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, not just fuel for power stations as it insists.
The United States said that if Iran continued moving in the "wrong direction" it would discuss future steps with the U.N. Security Council, which can impose punitive measures.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the use of force could not solve the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, but he did not reiterate Moscow's past opposition to sanctions. READ MORE
"If such plans exist they will not be able to solve this problem. On the contrary they could create a dangerous explosive blaze in the Middle East, where there are already enough blazes," he was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
U.S. President George W. Bush this week dismissed media reports of plans for strikes on Iran as "wild speculation" and said force might not be needed to curb its nuclear ambitions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry urged Tehran to stop all enrichment work, saying its proclaimed atomic advance ran counter to the decisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Security Council.
But a senior Iranian official ruled out any retreat.
"Iran's nuclear activities are like a waterfall which has begun to flow. It cannot be stopped," said the official, who asked not to be named, referring to the Russian demand.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei will visit Iran on Thursday to seek full Iranian cooperation with the Security Council and IAEA inquiries, a trip now clouded by Ahmadinejad's speech.
The IAEA, whose inspectors are in Iran investigating nuclear sites, has given no comment on Iran's statements. But an agency diplomat said: "The timing was strange but it may have been intended by them to improve their bargaining position."
The Security Council has told Iran to halt all sensitive atomic activities and on March 29 it asked the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to report on its compliance in 30 days.
Three European states behind a deal to suspend enrichment which broke down last year weighed in with criticism of Iran.
Foreign Minister Jack Straw said the announcement was "deeply unhelpful" and undermined confidence. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Iran was "going in precisely the wrong direction" for a return to negotiations.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said it was a worrying step and Iran should stop its "dangerous activities".
The European Union voiced dismay. "This is regrettable," said Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations.
The Iranian president further stoked international anxieties about Iran's nuclear programme last year when he called for Israel's destruction. But Israelis responded cautiously to Iran's latest announcement, saying diplomacy was the best route.
"The United States has placed this issue at the top of its agenda. I do not recommend that we should be involved," Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres told Israel Radio.
The United States has pledged to defend Israel, which bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981.
The U.S. State Department said it was unable to confirm that Iran had enriched uranium and some experts said even if Tehran's assertions were accurate, it would still be years before the Islamic Republic was able to produce a nuclear weapon.
In a well-flagged televised address, Ahmadinejad had said: "I am officially announcing that Iran has joined the group of those countries which have nuclear technology."
He also said Iran's goal was industrial-scale enrichment.
The level of enrichment needed for nuclear bombs is far higher than the 3.5 percent Iran says it has reached.
It would take Iran about two decades to yield enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb with its current cascade of 164 centrifuges. But Tehran says it wants to install 3,000 centrifuges, enough to produce material for a warhead in a year.
Exiled Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi said in Strasbourg that the West had been too soft on Iran and had allowed the country "to get so close to a nuclear weapon".
Information provided in 2002 by Rajavi's National Council of Resistance of Iran, which wants to oust Iran's clerical rulers, forced Tehran to lift the veil on its nuclear programme.
The council's armed wing, the People's Mujahideen, is listed as a terrorist group by the United States.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Bullough in Moscow, Carol Giacomo and Tabbassum Zakaria in Washington, Luke Baker in Jerusalem, Mark Heinrich in Vienna)