Sunday, February 7, 2010

Iran moves closer to confrontation over uranium

Ahmadinejad of Iran took his country closer to confrontation with the West on Sunday, ordering scientists to enrich Iran's stockpiles of uranium to the higher level needed for nuclear power.

Mr Ahmadinejad's order was the culmination of a series of confusing statements by the regime in the last week. If it is carried out, it will scupper what was hoped to be a looming deal to transfer most of Iran's uranium abroad for further processing. Many in the West want uranium processing to take place outside the country so that fears over a weapons programme are allayed and the country's nuclear plans are better monitored.

European nations and America were already leading calls for more sanctions to be applied to Iran in the absence of a deal. Now if further enrichment starts, they are likely to put proposals to the United Nations security council soon.

Mr Ahmadinejad made his announcement with characteristic melodrama. In a speech filmed live for state television, he accused the West of "playing games" over the proposed deal and then turned towards Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, who was in the audience.

"I now ask Dr Salehi to start work on the production of 20 per cent fuel using centrifuges," he said.

Like previous demands by Mr Ahmadinejad that his scientists build 20 new uranium enrichment plants, the stream of statements may be designed to rally support at home as much as to spread confusion abroad.