Defiant Iran unveils heavy-water plant

Ahmadinejad: We are not a threat to anybody, not even to the Zionist regime.

iran map nuclear 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
iran map nuclear 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Iran on Saturday inaugurated a plant that could be used to produce plutonium, expanding its nuclear program only days before a UN deadline threatening sanctions unless Teheran halts efforts to build nuclear weapons. The official opening of the heavy-water plant at Khondab marked a new show of defiance. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shrugged off the possibility of sanctions, insisting his country would not slow its nuclear ambitions. "We tell the Western countries not to cause trouble for themselves, because Iranian people are determined to make progress and acquire technology," he said after inaugurating the site, underlining that Iran's nuclear program was peaceful. "There is no discussion of nuclear weapons," he said. "We are not a threat to anybody, even the Zionist regime, which is a definite enemy to the people of the region." Israel had no formal response to the inauguration. However, one senior official in the Prime Minister's Office reiterated Jerusalem's long-held position that a nuclear Iran was not only a threat to Israel. "Israel has consistently said that a nuclear Iran is not only a threat to Israel, but to the whole world," he said. "The international community has acknowledged this and is working to stop the threat." Regarding Ahmadinejad's comment that Iran was not a threat to Israel, the official said it was easy to pull out his previous quotes about wanting to wipe Israel off the map to show the exact opposite. Iran's newest moves come as high-level officials are increasingly concluding that Israel may have to act militarily to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. Labor MK and former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh issued a statement warning that Iran's heavy-water production marks "another leap in Iran's advance toward a nuclear bomb." Sneh said Iran's progress shows that international efforts to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons are insufficient. "Israel has to draw the conclusions and to prepare itself militarily," he said. The UN Security Council has given Iran until Thursday to suspend a key part of its nuclear program - the enrichment of uranium, a process that can produce either fuel for a reactor or material for a warhead. But Iran has refused any immediate suspension, dismissing the deadline as illegal - a stance that put it on a collision course with the council. Teheran appears to be counting on its allies Russia and China, which hold veto power in the council, to block any attempt to impose sanctions. Russian Vice Premier Sergei Ivanov said Friday that it was too early to consider imposing sanctions and that his country would press for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. The inauguration of the Khondab heavy-water plant, which had already been operating, was largely symbolic - but underlined Iran's determination to push ahead with its program despite the international pressure. The UN's Thursday deadline does not demand a halt to the plant or a nearby reactor that Iran is building to use the heavy water, focusing on what is seen as the more urgent concern, the uranium enrichment program. Still, the West has repeatedly called on Iran to stop construction of the heavy-water facilities, fearing it could be used as a second track toward building a warhead. When it is finished, the 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor could produce enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon each year, experts have said. Reactors fueled by low-enriched uranium use regular - or light - water in the chain reaction that produces energy. If uranium is enriched to a higher degree it can be used to build a weapon. Heavy water contains a heavier hydrogen particle, which allow the reactor to run on natural uranium mined by Iran, forgoing the enrichment progress. The spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor can be reprocessed to extract plutonium for use in a bomb. The reactor is due to be finished in 2009. The plant inaugurated on Saturday produces the heavy water for use in the reactor and has been operating since 2004. The plant's top official, Manouchehr Madadi, said the facility now has the ability to produce up to 16 tons of heavy water a year - double the amount it previously produced. The water plant and reactor are ringed with anti-aircraft guns for protection against air strikes, at the foot of the desert mountains outside the small town of Khondab, 330 kilometers southwest of Teheran, near the central city of Arak. Parts of the still unfinished reactor are believed to be built underground for further protection. Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said Saturday that the heavy-water plant will also be used to treat and diagnose AIDS and cancer, and for other medicinal and agricultural purposes. Besides worries over the Khondab construction, a more immediate confrontation was looming over Iran's uranium enrichment. The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will report to the Security Council on the state of Iran's program by mid-September. If IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's report finds that enrichment is continuing, the US and some in Europe are likely to start a push for sanctions. Iran on Tuesday responded to a package of incentives, presented by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, aimed at enticing it to halt enrichment. Teheran said it would be open to negotiations but did not agree to the West's key demand for an enrichment suspension as a precondition to talks. On Saturday, Ahmadinejad again affirmed Iran's right to develop nuclear technology even if sanctions are imposed. "They may impose some restrictions on us under pressure," he said. "But... will they be able to prevent a nation's access to progress and technology? They have to accept the reality of a powerful, peace-loving and developed Iran. This is in the interest of all governments and all nations whether they like it or not."