x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Defiant Iran claims 'big new nuclear advances'

Ahmadinejad announcement seems aimed at proving sanctions are futile, but sceptical analysts say the tactic has been tried before.

A defiant Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stoked tension with the West yesterday by announcing "big new achievements" in Iran's nuclear programme.

Tehran has produced its own nuclear-fuel plates for a medical research reactor and has added 3,000 more centrifuges to its uranium enrichment effort, the president said. He also ordered Iranian scientists to build four more nuclear research reactors.

The announcements were designed to show that unprecedented new US and European sanctions targeting Iran's oil sector will fail to halt its nuclear ambitions, but western analysts were sceptical of the proclaimed advances.

"We have seen these announcements and these grand unveilings and it turns out that there was less there than meets the eye. I suspect this is the same case," said Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, said none of the developments announced by Tehran would "really affect Iran's timeline for being able to produce a nuclear weapon, were they to make that momentous decision".

Nevertheless, by effectively saying it has the technical expertise to master the nuclear fuel cycle, Iran will add to already high tension with the United States and Israel. They, along with Britain and other European countries, suspect Tehran is seeking the means to weaponise its nuclear programme.

Israel has refused to rule out air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, which are monitored by the UN's atomic watchdog.

Iran's new nuclear claims also seem designed to strengthen its hand in any new nuclear negotiations with the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Tehran said yesterday that it welcomed their proposal, made in October, for a resumption of the talks that stalled a year ago.

In another possibly conciliatory gesture, Iran's foreign ministry denied that it was about to cut oil exports to six EU countries.

"Due to humanitarian reasons and the cold weather in the continent, it will not do so at the moment," Iran's Arabic broadcaster Al Alam said.

Iranian state television broadcast live footage of a jubilant Mr Ahmadinejad leading an elaborate ceremony where the country's first domestically produced nuclear fuel plates were loaded into a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Supplied by the US in 1967, the reactor produces medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients. The facility requires nuclear fuel enriched to 20 per cent, which Iran began producing two years ago after failing to agree to terms for a deal to obtain it from the West. It is a quick technological leap to purify 20 per cent enriched uranium to the 90 per cent level need for weapons grade.

Many western analysts doubted Iran would be able to convert its uranium into the special fuel plates for the Tehran reactor, hence Mr Ahmadinejad's delight at apparently proving them wrong.

His focus on the Tehran reactor yesterday also seemed designed to show the world that Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful.

"Developing the domestic fuel rods for the Tehran research reactor is politically significant but it is not militarily significant," Mr Fitzpatrick said in an interview with the BBC.

The reactor is not seen as a proliferation threat because it has no weapons purpose. Its significance lies in that it provides Tehran with an alleged justification for its more controversial 20 per cent enrichment activities.

Of more concern is Iran's boast that it has developed what Iranian state television called "fourth-generation centrifuges" made of carbon fibre that are "speedier, produce less waste and occupy less space" as they spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium.

This would be "militarily significant if Iran were able to produce them in large numbers, which I doubt", Mr Fitzpatrick said.

The Iranian president said 3,000 more centrifuges had been added to his country's main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.

"Approximately, 6,000 centrifuges were working … now there are 9,000," he said.

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, said the new centrifuges were three times more efficient than the existing capacity.

From pictures of Mr Ahmadinejad at the Tehran reactor, Iran's state broadcaster cut to file images of four Iranian scientists, three of them nuclear researchers, who Tehran has accused Israel of murdering in a covert campaign in the past two years.

Israel, in turn, has accused Iran in recent days of retaliatory plots aimed at Israeli targets in Georgia, India and Thailand, which Tehran has denied.

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday accused Tehran of "undermining the stability of the world".

He called on the international community to "denounce Iran's terrorist activity and mark red lines on the Iranian nuclear programme".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae