As a defiant Iran began enriching uranium to a higher level on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said the international community was “moving along fairly quickly” toward imposing new sanctions, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for crippling sanctions “right now.”
Obama, whose policy of engagement with Iran has not succeeded in halting Teheran’s nuclear march, told reporters at the White House, “what we are going to be working on over the next several weeks is developing a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole.”
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said he believed the UN should slap new sanctions on Iran in “weeks, not months,” according to his spokesman.
Netanyahu, however, wants to see immediate action.
“Iran is racing forward to produce nuclear weapons in brazen defiance of the international community,” Netanyahu told EU ambassadors during a meeting on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And the international community must decide if it is serious about neutralizing this threat to Israel, the region and the entire world. I believe that what is required right now is tough action from the international community.”
What was needed was not “moderate sanctions or watered down sanctions,” but rather “crippling sanctions, and these sanctions must be applied right now,” he said.
Netanyahu also said that Israel expected “all responsible governments” to “forcefully condemn” the “outrageous statements, including the implicit call for the extermination of my country,” that have been made in Teheran over the past two days.
Iran’s open defiance has infuriated much of the world, with even the chief of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev being quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Teheran’s recent actions have “raised doubts among other nations” concerning the Islamic Republic’s sincerity.
“Political and diplomatic methods are important in the settlement [of the nuclear issue], but everything has its limit and there are limits to patience,” Patrushev said. Moscow has for months counseled giving diplomacy more time before imposing sanctions.
France and the US said Iran’s action left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions to punish its nuclear defiance.
Iranian state television reported that the enrichment process began in the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency. Uranium has to be enriched to fuel nuclear power plants and Iran needs the 20 percent enriched fuel for a research reactor producing medical isotopes.
Enriching uranium to 90%, however, creates the material for nuclear weapons.
In an effort to defuse the crisis, the IAEA brokered a proposal last year in which Iran would ship out its low enriched uranium to be processed abroad and returned a year later.
Iran initially rejected the deal, then later said that if an acceptable alternative could be reached, it would not continue the high level enriching process.
Ali Akbar Salehi, a vice president as well as the head of the country’s nuclear program, said the further enrichment would be unnecessary if the West found a way to provide Iran with the needed fuel.
“Whenever they provide the fuel, we will halt production by 20%,” he told state TV late Monday.
Iran has so far enriched uranium to a level of 3.5%, which is suitable to fuel nuclear power plants.
On Tuesday, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, said any plan by the West to impose new Security Council resolutions would not be helpful.
“If they attempt another resolution, they are making a mistake. It is not helpful in resolving the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West,” he said. “They are completely wrong if they think our people will back down even a single step.”
Salehi said Iran has been trying to buy the higher enriched fuel for its research reactor for several months, but the West made providing it conditional on Iran’s acceptance of the UN-drafted proposal to ship its uranium stockpile abroad first.
That plan would come with some safeguards, because the enriched fuel provided to Iran would be in a form that would be difficult to further process to make weapons.
According to the report on state TV, the higher level enrichment began after Iranian scientists injected 25 kilograms of 3.5% enriched UF6, or Uranium hexafluoride, gas into a cascade of 164 centrifuge machines at a laboratory in the central town of Natanz, some 240 kilometers south of Teheran.
The machines are expected to produce about 2.5 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium out of 25 kilograms of gas every month, according to the report.
It said IAEA inspectors were present during the injection.
When asked about the enrichment process, Gill Tudor of the IAEA only said that the agency had inspectors in the country already.
“The agency continues to have inspectors in Iran conducting normal safeguard operations,” Tudor said.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates believes a new UN resolution would lay the legal groundwork countries need to impose sanctions independently and pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, said that Germany is “very concerned about the developments in Iran,” and that “if Iran insists on refusing to join negotiations, talks at the United Nations will be unavoidable and we will then have to talk about new measures.
“There is also the possibility of widening the sanctions,” he told reporters in Berlin.
No UN Security Council sanctions can be passed, however, without unanimous agreement from all members, including China, which has been reluctant to impose new punitive measures on Iran.
China called for more talks on Tuesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, saying, “I hope the relevant parties will step up efforts and push for progress in the dialogue and negotiations.”
Iran says it needs the 20% enriched fuel for a research reactor producing radio isotopes to treat cancer and manufacture radiography materials. Iran says more than 850,000 people need the products for their illnesses.