Iran ups the ante with fresh round of uranium enrichment

IRAN has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site well protected from possible airstrikes, in another show of defiance against Western pressure to rein in its nuclear programme.

The story was reported in a leading newspaper. Another paper quoted a senior commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard force as saying Tehran’s leadership has decided to order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil route, if the country’s petroleum exports are blocked.

Revolutionary Guard ground forces also staged war games in eastern Iran in an apparent display of resolve against US forces just over the border in Afghanistan.

“The supreme authorities ... have insisted that if enemies block the export of our oil, we won’t allow a drop of oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. This is the strategy of the Islamic Republic in countering such threats,” deputy commander Ali Ashraf Nouri was quoted as saying by the Khorasan daily.

Iranian politicians have issued similar threats in the past, but this is the strongest statement yet by a top commander in the security establishment.

The latest statements are certain to fuel tensions with the US and its allies, which are trying to turn up pressure on Iran with new sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.

The UN has already sanctioned Iran for refusing to stop uranium enrichment — which can produce both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material. Tehran says its nuclear programme is only for energy and medical research.

Kayhan daily, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said Tehran has begun injecting uranium gas into sophisticated centrifuges at the Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom.

“Kayhan received reports yesterday that show Iran has begun uranium enrichment at the Fordo facility amid heightened foreign enemy threats,” the paper said in a front-page report. Kayhan’s manager is a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all important matters of state.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, said late on Saturday that his country will “soon” begin enrichment at Fordo.

It was impossible to immediately reconcile the two reports.

Iran has a major uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in central Iran, where nearly 8,000 centrifuges are operating. Tehran began enrichment at Natanz in April 2006.

The Fordo centrifuges, however, are reportedly more efficient. And the site better shielded from aerial attack.

Meanwhile, Iran’s government on Saturday welcomed the US Navy’s rescue of 13 Iranian fishermen held by pirates, calling it a positive humanitarian gesture.

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