ARAK, Iran (Reuters) -Iran’s president launched a new phase in the Arak heavy-water reactor project on Saturday, saying Tehran would not give up its right to nuclear technology despite Western fears it aims to make atomic bombs.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was speaking just days before an August 31 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for Iran to halt uranium enrichment — the West’s biggest worry in Iran’s atomic program — or face possible sanctions.
“No one can deprive a nation of its rights based on its capabilities,” Ahmadinejad said in his speech to inaugurate the heavy water project.
The Arak project, once complete, will produce plutonium as a by-product that could be used to make atomic warheads. But the reactor that will produce this is still being built.
Western nations accuse Iran of seeking to master technology to produce nuclear weapons. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, insists it only wants to produce electricity.
“Iran is not a threat to anybody, not even to the Zionist regime,” Ahmadinejad said, using Iran’s term for its arch-enemy Israel, which the Islamic Republic does not recognize.
Although Iran faces possible sanctions if it does not heed the U.N. deadline, divisions among world powers over how to handle the Islamic republic could delay any action.
The Los Angeles Times reported Washington had indicated it was ready to form an independent coalition to freeze Iranian assets and restrict trade if necessary. Analysts say sanctions imposed by just a few states would have limited impact.
Iran is likely to raise further fears in Western capitals by pressing ahead with the heavy-water project near Arak, 120 miles
southwest of the capital Tehran.
An Iranian official said the project is not a proliferation risk because heavy water has no military use. Diplomats say it is not a constructive step.
“It’s not a proliferation risk in itself, but the associated operations — still to be constructed — would be. And the timing seems particularly poor,” said a Vienna-based diplomat familiar with operations of the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Iran.
The U.N. Security Council resolution setting the August 31 deadline to halt enrichment also cited a call by the U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for Iran to reconsider building its heavy water reactor project.
The Arak complex was protected by dozens of anti-aircraft guns and surrounded by a four-meter high barbed wire fence. Photographers and TV journalists were asked not to take any images except in areas where they were specifically permitted.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, told the students’ ISNA news agency that IAEA inspectors would visit Arak next week.
Inspectors routinely visit Iranian facilities but diplomats say a group was recently denied access to an Iranian underground site. Iran denies hindering routine access but earlier this year stopped allowing snap checks of its facilities by inspectors.
The West’s main concern is Iran’s program for enriching uranium, a process that can be used to make fuel for nuclear power stations or material for bombs.
But Iran has so far refused to stop the work and shrugged off the threat of sanctions, saying it would push already soaring oil prices higher still, hurting industrial nations.
Iran’s deputy parliament speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, warned the West in comments published by Iran’s Sharq newspaper on Saturday that putting pressure on the country could prompt public calls for Iran to pursue a weapons program.
“Be afraid of the day that the Iranian nation comes into the streets and stages demonstrations to ask the government to produce nuclear weapons to combat the threats,” he said.
Six world powers offered Iran incentives to halt enrichment. But Iran has only hinted it might be ready to consider halting the work as a result of talks, not as a precondition. The reply seemed designed to divide opinion among the six powers.
The United States has warned of swift action on sanctions. Britain, Germany and France have been less conclusive in public. But Russia and China, both trade partners of Iran, have been unwilling and could veto sanctions in the Security Council.