As Iran announces plans to build 10 new enrichment plants, Russia vows quick completion of Bushehr plant

Iran defiantly announces

Russia's energy minister pledged Sunday to accelerate completion of a nuclear power station in Iran, just two weeks after announcing the latest delay, Reuters reported. Sergei Shmatko refrained from giving a specific time for the launch of a planned reactor at Bushehr. His comment comes following talks with Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi and the same day as Iran's government announced plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants, in a major expansion of its disputed nuclear program. Last month, Shmatko said that technical issues would prevent engineers from starting up the Bushehr plant, commissioned from Russian state contractor Atomstroyexport. The Bushehr reactor was previously slated to go online by the end of 2009. He declined to comment on Iran's statement that it plans to build 10 new plants and was upbeat regarding the Bushehr reactor which, he insisted, met all requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "We have done our best to complete the project. Now we are testing the system in full compliance with security requirements of IAEA. I'm surprised how well the tests are going," he said. But he declined to pinpoint a date for the reactor going online. "I don't want to guess. What if we have a technical problem and will need a week to fix it?" he asked. Earlier Sunday, the Iranian government defiantly snubbed the world, announcing approval of a plan to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, in a dramatic act of non-cooperation with UN demands that it halt its nuclear program. The decision comes only two days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, censured Iran, demanding it immediately stop building a newly revealed enrichment facility near Qom and freeze all uranium enrichment activities. The rebuke angered Iran, raising demands from lawmakers Sunday to cut back cooperation with the UN. Any new enrichment plants would take years to build and stock with centrifuges - if the material could even be obtained under UN sanctions - but the ambitious plans were a bold show by Iran that it won't back down amid a deadlock in negotiations. The White House responded by saying that if Iran really did plan to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, the move "would be yet another serious violation of Iran's clear obligations under multiple UN Security Council resolutions and another example of Iran choosing to isolate itself." Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said the report Sunday meant that Iran was "choosing to isolate itself." "Time is running out for Iran to address the international community's growing concerns about its nuclear program," Gibbs said. Another senior US official said that, "if carried out, this would constitute yet another violation of Iran's continuing obligation of suspension of all enrichment-related activities, including construction of new plants. "There remains a fleeting opportunity for Iran to engage with the international community, if only it would make that choice," said the official. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband described Iran's move as a provocation. "This epitomizes the fundamental problem that we face with Iran," he said. "We have stated over and again that we recognize Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program, but they must restore international confidence in their intentions. Instead of engaging with us, Iran chooses to provoke and dissemble." The rebuke angered Iran, raising demands from lawmakers Sunday to cut back cooperation with the UN. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that what made the IAEA's Friday decision significant was that this time it included the support of both Russia and China, who until now have counseled against sanctions or harshly worded censure of Iran. "Efforts need to continue in order to bring real pressure, real sanctions on the regime in Iran, which is very vulnerable economically," Netanyahu said, during a speech in Eilat. Netanyahu said the Iranian regime was highly vulnerable now because it has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Neither Netanyahu nor the Foreign Ministry had any direct response to the Iranian announcement, with one diplomatic official saying that Israel did not want to get into a rhetorical "ping-pong" match with the Iranians over various declarations. However, an Israeli official said the sense in Jerusalem was that Teheran did not have immediate plan to build 10 more enrichment facilities, but that this was its way at snubbing its nose at the world and forcefully rejecting the IAEA's decision. In Vienna, spokeswoman Gillian Tudor said the IAEA would have no comment on Teheran's announcement. During a cabinet meeting in Teheran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin building five uranium enrichment sites that have already been studied and propose five other locations for future construction within two months, state news agency IRNA reported. The cabinet ordered the new sites to be on the same scale as Iran's only other industrial-scale enrichment plant currently in operation, near the town of Natanz in central Iran. About 8,600 centrifuges have been set up in Natanz, but only about 4,000 are actively enriching uranium, according to the IAEA. The facility will eventually house 54,000 centrifuges. The Qom site, known as Fordo, is a smaller-scale site that will house nearly 3,000 centrifuges. Its discovery earlier this year brought accusations that Iran was developing the site clandestinely, a claim Teheran denies. In the enrichment process, uranium gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it. Enriched to a low degree, the result is fuel for a nuclear reactor - but highly enriched uranium can be used to build a warhead. The US and its allies accuse Iran of secretly seeking to develop a bomb, a claim denied by Iran, which says it seeks only to generate electricity. Iran aims to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power plants in the next 20 years. IRNA said the new plants are needed to produce enough fuel for its future reactors. Ahmadinejad told the cabinet that Iran will need to install 500,000 centrifuges throughout the planned enrichment facilities to produce between 250 to 300 tons of fuel annually, IRNA reported. The IAEA censure against Iran on Friday was seen as a show of international unity in pressuring Teheran over its nuclear program - though there does not yet appear to be consensus on imposing sanctions. The rebuke infuriated Iran. On Saturday, one hard-line lawmaker warned that parliament might withdraw the country from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and stop all UN inspections - a move that would sharply escalate the standoff with the West and cut off the UN's only eyes on Iran's nuclear program. But parliament took a lesser step on Sunday: 226 of the 290 lawmakers signed a letter urging the government to prepare a plan to reduce Teheran's cooperation with the IAEA in response to its resolution. The US and its allies demand Iran accept a UN-brokered offer that would delay its ability to make a nuclear weapon as well as engage in broader talks with the ultimate goal of persuading it to mothball its enrichment program. Iran has amassed about 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium at Natanz. The UN offer aims to convince Iran to hand over more than 1,200 kilograms, more than the commonly accepted amount needed to produce weapons-grade material. But Iran has balked at the UN terms for the plan.