Iran Announces Plans to Increase Uranium Enrichment

BY Larisa Epatko  February 8, 2010 at 4:42 PM EST

Iran told the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency Monday that it would begin enriching its stockpile of uranium to 20 percent purity for a medical reactor, renewing calls from U.S., Russian and French officials for a tougher approach and unified action against Tehran.

Western nations suspect Iran of enriching uranium for a nuclear weapon, but Tehran has said it is for civilian purposes. In October, Iran appeared to support a plan to swap its uranium stockpile for enriched uranium processed into fuel rods outside the country, but has since backed off from the deal.

The Islamic Republic said it needs the higher enriched uranium for a research reactor in Tehran that makes radioisotopes for medical purposes such as cancer treatment. Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi told state television that the process would begin at the Natanz nuclear facility on Tuesday.

The move prompted words of warning from Western and other leaders. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a news conference in Paris that while countries should continue to try to find a peaceful way to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, “the only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track. But it will require all of the international community to work together.

“We have to face the reality that if Iran continues and develops nuclear weapons, it almost certainly will provoke nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. And that’s a huge danger,” Gates said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said separately that Iran should face “strong sanctions” over its nuclear program. All major powers except China are in favor of a fourth round of U.N.-backed sanctions, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters.

And in Moscow, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as urging the international community to respond to Iran with “serious measures,” according to the New York Times.