Sunday, January 28, 2007

Iran begins big nuclear build-up

IRAN plans next month to begin installing equipment that will enrich uranium on an industrial scale, dramatically raising the bidding in its confrontation with the West.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iranian officials had told him they planned to start installing the centrifuge equipment in an underground plant at Natanz, 150 miles south of Tehran. Centrifuges are the machines that spin uranium gas to enrich it to a grade suitable for nuclear power or weapons.

ElBaradei said he was worried that further sanctions against Iran, which the United Nations has threatened to impose next month if it fails to halt its enrichment programme, were “only going to lead to escalation”.

He dismissed as “absolutely bonkers” suggestions that Israel or the US might mount a military attack on the Iranian nuclear sites. It might destroy the buildings, he said, but it would not deprive Iran of its nuclear expertise and would strengthen the hand of hardliners in the regime.

The US has said it wants a diplomatic solution to the standoff but has not ruled out military action if that failed.

In a move analysts said was a warning to Iran, it has sent a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

American officials say that there may be an element of bluff in the Iranian statement of intention as the regime had promised a year ago to have 3,000 centrifuges in operation by now.

The credibility of official Iranian pronouncements was further undermined last night when a leading politician in Tehran claimed that the centrifuges were already being installed. “We are now installing 3,000 centrifuges,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs and national security committee, announced. However his statement was swiftly denied by a spokesman of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation.

A formal announcement on Tehran’s nuclear plans is expected for the anniversary of the Iranian revolution next month.

In Washington, the White House reiterated the US stance that the installation of the centrifuges would be a “major miscalculation” by the Iranian government. UN sanctions imposed last month banned the transfer of sensitive materials and know-how to Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The United States has also imposed sanctions on two big Iranian state banks, ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran.

In a separate sign of mounting tensions Iran has demanded the removal of Chris Charlier, a Belgian UN official in charge of inspecting the country’s nuclear programme. The move follows a ban on 38 inspectors from the US, Britain, Germany and France that had pushed for UN sanctions.

The IAEA has a pool of 200 inspectors to verify Tehran is not diverting materials into bomb production. Iran has the legal right to reject any inspector and says it is still co-operating with the IAEA.

Diplomats have said the IAEA did not want a precedent set for hampering inspections and thereby escalating confrontation with the West.