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Three world powers criticize Iranian enrichment

VIENNA — Russia, the United States and France have urged Iran to stop enriching uranium to higher levels and suggested the project reinforces suspicions that Tehran is seeking to make nuclear weapons. The joint statement, made public Tuesday, reflects unified Russian and Western opposition to Iran's increased enrichment.

Shrugging off international concerns, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the country was moving ahead to expand its enrichment capacities by installing more advanced machinery at its main enrichment facility.

He told reporters in Tehran Tuesday the new centrifuges are not yet operational but are five times more efficient than the model now in use at its underground Natanz enrichment plant.

Officials at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said they had no comment. The latest IAEA report on Iran in November said that as of early October no advanced centrifuges had been installed at the plant.

Because enrichment can produce both nuclear weapons as well as reactor fuel, Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to stop its program. Its determination to expand such activities had been criticized worldwide even before an announcement this month that Tehran would enrich to a higher level.

The confidential letter critical of the higher-enrichment plan was shared Tuesday with the Associated Press. Dated Feb. 12, it was addressed to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano and signed by senior U.S., Russian and French envoys.

Moscow in the past has often put the brakes on Western attempts to penalize Tehran for defying U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze its enrichment program, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads. But while Russia has recently signaled more support for new U.N. sanctions, China — a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council that depends on Iran for much of its energy needs — remains opposed.

The letter questioned the rationale of Tehran's assertion that it had started the higher enrichment project to provide fuel to a research reactor providing medical isotopes for cancer patients.

Iran's decision to enrich to the 20 percent level is "wholly unjustified, contrary to U.N. Security Council resolutions and represent(s) a further step toward a capability to produce highly enriched uranium," read the letter to IAEA chief Amano.

In other news Tuesday

• Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims, saying his country is not planning a war with Iran and that Tehran's concerns over such a conflict are the result of the threat of additional international sanctions.

• The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom watchdog, accused Iran of one of the world's most severe crackdowns on journalists with more than 90 reporters arrested last year. It said Iran is still holding at least 23 writers and editors, second only to China in the number of journalists detained.

• Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary-general of Iran's High Council for Human Rights, said anti-government protests should be allowed in his country because they are "natural" for a democratic state. The comments stand in stark contrast to the government's efforts to crack down on opposition groups protesting the outcome of last year's presidential elections.

• Iran is considering a request by the families of detained Americans Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal to visit them in prison.

Three world powers criticize Iranian enrichment 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 10:59pm]
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