Iran announces membership in nuclear club

The 31th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran on February 11, 2010 (AFP Photo / Atta Kenare)
In the latest snub to its detractors, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday told a large crowd of pro-government supporters that the country was now a nuclear state.

“The day before yesterday the process of producing the 20-percent fuel began,” Ahmadinejad told a throng of supporters who assembled to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic state. “I want to give you this news… that by God's grace the news released by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was that the first package of 20 percent fuel was produced and provided to the scientists.”

Judging by the endless sea of supporters that had gathered around the Azadi Tower, the majestic 50-meter (148 foot) white marble monument that symbolizes Tehran, it seemed that Ahmadinejad had finally silenced his opposition. Indeed, the announcement of the uranium enrichment was at least partially intended to cast a shadow over the pockets of protest against the Iranian government. (For RT exclusive interview with Doctor Seyyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran, click here).

The crowd, which has been estimated in the millions, occasionally interrupted the Iranian president's fiercely patriotic speech, chanting (in Farsi) “God is great, Khamenei is the supreme leader.”

Ahmadinejad insisted once again that Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons.

Nuclear experts, however, argue that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent grade is far short of the required 90 per cent enrichment level required to produce nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the United States and some of its allies believe Tehran is attempting to develop the technology to build nuclear weapons behind the cover of a civilian nuclear-energy program.

There goes the nuclear neighborhood

For the past year, the UN nuclear watchdog has been trying to broker a deal with Iran to export its enriched uranium to Russia and France where it would then be enriched further and returned in the form of fuel rods for a medical research reactor.

Just last week, Ahmadinejad was signaling what appeared to be real interest in the plan.

International Nuclear Club

Country              Date of first test

United States       July 16, 1945
Russia                  Aug. 29, 1949
UK                             Oct. 3, 1952
France                   Feb. 13, 1960
China                      Oct. 16, 1964
India                       May 18, 1974
Israel                                  ?
Pakistan                 May 28, 1998
North Korea             Oct. 9, 2006

“If we allow them to take it, there is no problem,” he said. “We sign a contract to give 3.5 per cent enriched uranium and receive 20 per cent enriched after four or five months.”

Tehran is now alleging it was forced to start enriching its uranium stores to higher levels because negotiations with international representatives had hit a stalemate. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad is arguing that it is the West who cannot be trusted.

“Again they moved a step forward and said ‘we are willing to give Iran another chance so that it accepts the imposed conditions’,” the Iranian president commented in his speech Thursday. “With all these comments once again they showed that they are not honest, they showed that our mistrust is not baseless and it's our right not to trust them."

This is not the first time that Tehran has sent the international community mixed signals concerning its nuclear energy program.

In September, Iran sent a letter to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), admitting it had constructed a second uranium enrichment plant inside a mountain complex near the ancient city of Qom, one of the holiest Shia cities in the Middle East.

Western media speculated that the Iranians decided to deliver their “confession” because they began to suspect that US intelligence had knowledge of the site and was about to go public with their information.

Although Iran’s latest announcement will be viewed as a setback in the negotiation process, a confidential document from the UN nuclear agency obtained by The Associated Press said Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment program is modest, using only a small amount of its uranium stores.

The document, which cites onsite reports from IAEA inspectors, also quoted statements by Iranian experts at the country's enrichment plant at Natanz, who confirmed that only about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of low enriched uranium had been “fed into the cascade for further enrichment.”

Sanctions and protests

US President Barack Obama rankled many in Washington when he announced he would “sit down and talk” with Ahmadinejad. Since this strategy never got off the ground, the American president is threatening Iran with sanctions. But there are several factors preventing the United States and its allies from applying excessive pressure on Tehran at this stage in the game, the most important being the domestic situation inside of Iran.

As hundreds of thousands of government supporters massed in Azadi Square to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution – which incidentally is the most celebrated date of the Iranian calendar, security forces were out in full force battling protests by the opposition – which have not let Ahmadinejad in peace since last year’s presidential elections erupted in street protests over accusations of electoral fraud.

In the center of Tehran at Azadi Square, there was little sign of political opposition. Huge crowds waved Iranian flags and lifted pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic state, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But in other parts of Tehran, as well as in other Iranian cities, police are fighting running battles with the opposition. They were immediately met by the firm resistance of Iran’s security apparatus, which is canvassing the country in full force

The Revolutionary Guards and police warned in advance of the popular anniversary that they would crack down heavily on any protesters who attempted to use the public holiday as a way to stir up trouble.

“If anyone wants to disrupt this glorious ceremony, they will be confronted by people and we too are fully prepared,' police chief Esmail Moghaddam warned on Wednesday.

Several individuals who had been planning to protest were already in custody, he said.

Tehran residents also reported Internet problems and e-mail services being disrupted in what appears to be a government strategy to thwart opposition attempts to organize.

Police and “civilian militia groups” armed with batons and pepper spray attacked supporters of one senior opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, as he tried to join the anti-government protests, his son Hossein Karroubi told The Associated Press.

The attackers – thought to be members of the Basij civilian militia – damaged several cars and smashed windows on Karroubi's car, though he escaped serious injury, he said.

According to the opposition Website Rahesabz, security forces briefly detained the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and her husband, who are both popular pro-reform politicians.

It is the hope of many observers that such general uprisings will force Ahmadinejad out of office before there is a need to impose sanctions – or worse.

Some Russian responses

“This situation really has all of the potential to get out of control,” said one member of the United Nations branch office in Moscow, who asked not to be named. “When you consider Ahmadinejad’s reckless rants combined with his possible desire for nuclear weapons, it really is a cause for concern.”

Meanwhile, one of Russia’s most outspoken and eccentric politicians said that Russia will support international economic sanctions against Iran.

“Nothing will stop Iran," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian State Duma deputy chairman and the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, told Interfax Thursday. "And Russia will support tougher economic sanctions against this country.”

Zhironovsky then laid out his own plans for freeing the world of nuclear weapons.

First, he said, the leading powers should make sure that Israel guarantee non-possession of nuclear weapons, and then Russia should demand that China, India, and Pakistan dispose of nuclear weapons by 2020.

“Finally, France and the United Kingdom have to be forced to destroy their nuclear weapons by 2030, and the U.S. and Russia will get rid of them in 2040.”

We can only hope that Iran does not somehow foil Mr. Zhironivsky's bold plans.

Robert Bridge, RT