TEHRAN, (Reuters) – Iranians will hear “good news” on Tehran’s nuclear programme on Tuesday night, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, and Iranian media said this would mean Iran had enriched uranium for use in fuelling atomic reactors.
Such an announcement would mark a serious setback to U.N. Security Council efforts to have Iran suspend enrichment work. It could escalate a confrontation with Western powers leading to consideration of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The Council has demanded Iran shelve enrichment activity, which the West suspects is a preliminary step towards making nuclear bombs, and on March 29 asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report on its compliance in 30 days.
Iran was referred by the IAEA to the Council in February for failing to convince much of the international community that its nuclear work aims to generate only electricity, not weaponry, and will not pose a threat to international peace and security.
“After hearing all the good news tomorrow (Tuesday) night, Iranians should prostrate themselves before almighty God,” Ahmadinejad was quoted by official news agency IRNA as saying in the northeastern city of Mashhad on Monday night.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to visit Iran later this week to seek full Iranian cooperation with the Council and IAEA inquiries. Any announcement of advances in enrichment work by Iran could cast an embarrassing cloud over ElBaradei’s trip.
Teymour Ali Asgari, a Mashhad parliamentarian, told Mehr news agency Ahmadinejad had informed a meeting of clerics that the whole enrichment process had been mastered, “so that Iran is among the countries that are members of the atomic energy club”.
Iranian nuclear officials have previously said purifying uranium to 3.5 percent would require the operation of 164 centrifuges, which spin it at supersonic speeds to heighten the concentration of its most radioactive isotope, U-235.
Two weeks ago IAEA diplomats said Iran had set up a “cascade” of 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant but no uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), the feedstock for enriched fuel, had yet been fed into them. It had tested 20 centrifuges, they added.
“It may be that they have begun feeding the 164. That might be the logical extent of progress since late March. It wouldn’t be urprising,” a European Union diplomat accredited to the IAEA said when asked about Ahmadinejad’s teaser.
A special team of IAEA inspectors went to Iran on Friday to gather fresh information at nuclear sites for ElBaradei’s pending report to the Security Council. IAEA officials have declined to divulge any findings so far.
The level of enrichment needed to trigger the nuclear chain reaction that detonates bombs is far higher, around 90 percent, but even word that low-level enrichment is under way will be unacceptable to Western powers, diplomats say.
“164 centrifuges is still well short of producing enriched uranium in significant quantity over a sustained period. But the more they do it, the more they learn the technology. So any form of enrichment is a red line for us,” the EU diplomat said.
It would take Iran years to yield enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb with such a small cascade. But Iran has told the IAEA it will start installing 3,000 centrifuges later this year, enough to produce material for a warhead in a year.
“After the good nuclear news, the psychological war against us will start,” lawmaker Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moghaddam told an Iranian parliament session on Tuesday. “I can say there will be international media campaign against us in the next days because of the news the president will announce.”
Washington has said repeatedly it wants to resolve the nuclear standoff by diplomatic means. But analysts says advances in uranium enrichment technology by Iran may be the tripwire for the United States or Israel to take military action.
President George W. Bush on Monday dismissed reports of plans for military strikes on Iran as “wild speculation”.
“Our enemies cannot do a damn thing given the Iranian nation’s persistence, and they know that,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by state television.