A Nuclear Boast: The View From Iran

  • Share
  • Read Later
Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

A technician walks inside the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, April 3, 2007.

In a brazen step certain to aggravate the nuclear crisis between Iran and the West, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Monday his country was now capable of industrial scale uranium enrichment. The declaration carried the hallmarks of the president's theatrical, defiant speeches, styled to show off Iran's tough posture and encourage a sense of nationalist pride among ordinary Iranians. "With great pride, I declare that as of today our country has joined the nuclear club of nations," Ahmadinejad said, speaking before a great billboard of the Iranian flag encircled by the symbol for nuclear energy. The next day Iranian newspapers ran tall headlines reading simply "NUCLEAR POWER."

Ahmadinejad renewed his warning that Iran would reconsider its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, if the West continued its pressure against his country's nuclear program. The warning was echoed by Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme National Security Council, who is regarded by diplomats in Western capitals as a moderate. The two spoke at the country's main nuclear complex Natanz, in central Iran, and Larijani said Iran had begun injecting gas into centrifuges. Perhaps deliberately vague, neither official specified whether Tehran was running gas in the pilot plant at Natanz or a more expansive plant containing at least 3,000 centrifuges. The head of Iran's atomic energy organization, Reza Aghazadeh, added to the confusion on Tuesday, claiming that Iran planned to install 50,000 centrifuges in an interview with the semi-official ISNA new agency. Western experts are concerned about Iran's mastery of centrifuges, because the process produces enriched uranium and is the technological step required for making bomb fuel.

The number of centrifuges Iran is actually running matters, because the central question of concern to the West is whether Iran has attained the requisite centrifuge know-how necessary to make bombs or is exaggerating its nuclear activity to boost its negotiation position. Analysts in Tehran believe the answer lies somewhere in between. "While I think the president's announcement was mostly important from a propaganda and political standpoint," said Saeed Laylaz, a former government official and analyst, "that doesn't mean the centrifuge goal is not reachable." He believes it is quite possible 2,000 centrifuges have been installed, and that 3,000 — the number cited by Iranian officials this year — could be ready "in a matter of months."

The announcements at Natanz were planned to coincide with National Nuclear Technology Day, decreed last year by Ahmadinejad on the occasion of Iran's first successful experiment in uranium enrichment. The holiday coincides with the anniversary of the date Iran cut ties with the United States after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranians celebrated with a measure of irony, pleased to find the government had decreed the metro system free for the day, but anxious over what Tehran's latest nuclear strides would mean for their country's tense stand-off with the West. "I'm very sorry I forgot to congratulate you," a customer joked to the owner of a bookshop in central Tehran. "Where's my yellow cake?" replied the owner, punning on the term for a byproduct of refined uranium.