Iran dramatically and provocatively escalated tensions over its nuclear programme last night when state media reported that the government has approved plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants. The defiant move came as the Islamic republic smarted from a sharp and united international rebuke over its nuclear ambitions, delivered by the United Nations' nuclear monitor on Friday.
Tehran's uncompromising response yesterday signalled the increasing unlikelihood that it will accept a UN-drafted uranium exchange deal designed to allay concerns that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at weapons development. Tehran had agreed to the proposal "in principle" early last month, but has now set itself on a confrontational course with the West. Washington, clearly dismayed, warned Tehran that it would be again breaking international law if it carried out its new plans. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demanded last week that Iran mothball a newly revealed nuclear facility and halt uranium enrichment.
Earlier yesterday, Iran's parliament urged the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reduce co-operation with the IAEA. The new plants will be the same size as Iran's main industrial-scale enrichment site at Natanz and work would begin within two months, Tehran's state broadcaster said. The location for five of them had already been decided and a suitable location for another five would be found. Mr Ahmadinejad also said his cabinet would study plans on Wednesday to enrich uranium to a higher level for use in a medical research reactor, Iranian media reported.
Strident parliamentary opposition to the UN deal reflected growing domestic pressure on the Iranian president not to compromise on the nuclear issue. Despite his hardline reputation and anti-western rhetoric, Mr Ahmadinejad had appeared to favour the UN's fuel-swap proposal, viewing it as a way to shore up his legitimacy after his disputed re-election, analysts say. But he is facing payback from rivals across the political spectrum who do not want the polarising leader taking credit for what Iran experts say would be a domestically popular breakthrough with the West.
Resisting considerable pressure from hawks in Washington, Barack Obama, the US president, has kept the door open to negotiations with Tehran. Mr Obama appears keenly sensitive to the unprecedented divisions with the Iranian leadership ignited by Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June. Giving Tehran time to respond to his outreach, Mr Obama has indicated that Washington will not push for further sanctions against Iran before the end of the year. The problem is that the United States is not sure who is "calling the shots" in Tehran, making engagement extremely difficult, said Gary Sick, a pre-eminent Iran expert at New York's Columbia University.
He is convinced that the Revolutionary Guards are rapidly becoming the dominant force in Iranian politics, greater even than Mr Ahadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the "decision-making apparatus" of the elite force is "totally opaque", he wrote last week. Iran's conservative-dominated parliament yesterday demanded a reduction in ties with the IAEA because of its "political" resolution - which won rare support from Russia and China. An overwhelming majority of deputies also demanded that Tehran continue is nuclear programme "without any halt" and accused Mr Obama of failing to make the "slightest change" in policy towards Iran.
The IAEA resolution delighted Washington because it had rare Russian and Chinese backing, indicating their frustration with Iran's procrastination over the two-month-old UN deal. The proposals require Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is solely peaceful in nature, to send abroad the bulk of its low-enriched uranium to be further refined for use in a medical reactor in Tehran. The vital confidence-building measure would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, experts say.
Iran News, an Iranian state-run English language newspaper, lashed out at Russia and China yesterday, saying Iran's two nominal allies were taking "advantage of Iran for their own interests". Washington said the IAEA resolution showed that patience was "running out" with Iran but insisted it was not meant to be "punitive": it contained no threat of further sanctions. Glyn Davies, the US ambassador to the IAEA, said: "I hope it provides further impetus on the diplomatic track."
That track appears to be stymied by a foreign policy vacuum in Tehran, where senior figures have sent conflicting signals on the fuel exchange deal. Most have been robustly negative - none more so than yesterday's - but Iran has not formally slammed the door. Instead, it has offered counter-proposals that have so far been unacceptable to world powers. The final decision on the nuclear deal lies with Ayatollah Khamenei, who backed Mr Ahmadinejad's contested re-election and, while deeply mistrustful of the West, it was the ayatollah's chief nuclear negotiator who cagily agreed to the uranium deal eight weeks ago.
Some analysts believe Ayatollah Khamenei backed off the deal because of strong opposition from Revolutionary Guards commanders who did not want Tehran to lose its ability to its "breakout capacity": the ability to produce an atom bomb at short notice. "That the hawks were able to veto the representative of the Supreme Leader Khamenei lends credence to Gary Sick's argument that the Revolutionary Guards have carried out a soft coup behind the scenes and Iran looks more like a military junta," Juan Cole, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, wrote on his blog, Informed Comment.
Mr Sick, who served at the National Security Council under three US presidents, was at the White House when militant Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran 30 years ago. Now, as then, Iran is at a "revolutionary juncture" - a "hinge moment" in history, he wrote on his blog, Gary's Choices. Three decades ago, Washington had difficulty in identifying an interlocutor in Tehran. The situation today is "eerily familiar", Mr Sick wrote. "How do you engage with Iran when there is no reliable address in Tehran?"