, TEHRAN, Feb 7 – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered Iran\’s atomic chief on Sunday to enrich uranium to 20 percent, in a fresh challenge to world powers days after appearing to accept a UN-drafted nuclear fuel deal.
Ahmadinejad also blamed the world powers for the stalemate over the fuel deal, but left the door open for possible negotiation over the proposal.
"I had said let us give them (world powers) two to three months and if they don\’t agree, we would start ourselves," Ahmadinejad said in a speech at an exhibition on laser technology which was broadcast live on state television.
"Now Dr (Ali Akbar) Salehi, start to make the 20 percent with the centrifuges," the hardliner told the atomic chief, who was sitting in the audience.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which brokered the nuclear fuel proposal, offered no immediate comment on Ahmadinejad\’s latest remarks, which are likely to heighten international scepticism about the real intentions of Iran\’s nuclear programme.
World powers fear Tehran wants to enrich uranium to very high levels for use in an atomic weapons programme. Iran insists its nuclear enrichment drive is purely for peaceful purposes.
Ahmadinejad insisted that world powers "unconditionally" accept exchanging Iran\’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) for high purity 20 percent enriched uranium to be used as nuclear fuel for the Tehran reactor which makes medical isotopes.
He also said that Iran now had laser technology which can enrich uranium to any level but Tehran would resort to using centrifuges — the device which rotates at supersonic speed — for processing high purity uranium.
Ahmadinejad\’s statement comes after he indicated in an interview on state television last Tuesday that Iran was ready to send its LEU abroad for conversion into 20 percent nuclear fuel.
ILNA news agency reported that foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that enriching uranium to 20 percent was Iran\’s "right and not in contradiction to the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty)" to which Tehran is a signatory.
Defending the plan, Mehmanparast said that Iran will need "vast" amount of nuclear fuel in future which will be partly met by in-house production and partly from imports if those "who make it cooperate."
Iran and world powers are locked in a stalemate over the UN-drafted deal, which envisages the Islamic republic\’s 3.5 percent LEU being sent to Russia and France for enrichment to 20 percent and then returned as fuel for the Tehran reactor.
Iranian officials have opposed this proposal, saying they would prefer a simultaneous exchange on Iranian soil, a plan rejected by world powers.
Ahmadinejad said Sunday that if the world powers "come forward and say \’we will exchange (uranium) unconditionally and cooperate on your reactors and medicine\’… fine then we will cooperate" too.
The hardliner laid the blame for the fuel deadlock entirely at the door of world powers.
"Recently we said let\’s swap (uranium) though we can produce the 20 percent, but they started playing games," he said.
"They have just sent messages though that they want to fix things. The road to engagement is open. We did not block it."
Salehi himself said that the world powers had little time left for entering into the fuel deal with Iran.
"If they do not enter this fuel exchange we have to be ready for 20 percent enrichment," Fars quoted him as saying.
He said Iran had "received messages" for the exchange and there was "optimism in talks… but not much time was left" for the world powers.
The near daily shifts in the Iranian position over the fuel deal has consistently raised scepticism among world powers, who want to halt Tehran\’s galloping nuclear drive.
"I don\’t have the sense we are close to an agreement," US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Ankara on Saturday, a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the nuclear fuel deal was close to being finalised.
Gates also indicated that world powers could consider a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, saying Tehran has "done nothing to reassure the international community."