Iran’s president marked the anniversary of the nation’s foundation as an Islamic republic today by declaring it is now a “nuclear state”.
The country has produced its first package of highly enriched uranium just two days after beginning the process, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to hundreds of thousands of cheering Iranians.
He said: “The first package of 20% fuel was produced and provided to the scientists.”
Enriching uranium produces fuel for a nuclear power plants but can also be used to create material for atomic weapons.
Iran announced on Tuesday that it was beginning the process of enriching its uranium stockpile to a higher level.
The international community has warned Iran against further enrichment activities, threatening new UN sanctions.
Tehran has said it wants to further enrich the uranium – still substantially below the 90%-plus level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads – as part of a plan to fuel its research reactor that provides medical isotopes to Iranians undergoing cancer treatment.
But the West says Tehran is not capable of turning the material into the fuel rods needed by the reactor. Instead it fears that Iran wants to enrich the uranium to make nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran’s position that it was not seeking to build nuclear weapons.
“When we say we do not manufacture the bomb, we mean it, and we do not believe in manufacturing a bomb,” he told the crowd. “If we wanted to manufacture a bomb, we would announce it.”
Western powers blame Iran for rejecting an internationally endorsed plan to export its enriched uranium and have it enriched further and returned to the country in the form of fuel rods for the Tehran reactor – and in broader terms for turning down other overtures meant to diminish concerns about its nuclear agenda.
Iran asserts it had no choice but to start enriching to higher levels because its suggested changes to the international plan were rejected.
Meanwhile, reports today said authorities briefly arrested and then released the granddaughter of the architect of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and her husband.
The pro-reform Rahesabz website said Zahra Eshraghi and her husband Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of a former president, were in custody for an hour.
It would rank among the highest-profile detentions by authorities, which have waged a massive crackdown before today’s events marking the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which was led by Ms Eshraghi’s grandfather.
Hundreds of thousands of pro-government demonstrators gathered in the central square of Tehran today.
State television showed thousands carrying often identical banners, marching to the central Azadi Square to attend a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In Azadi Square, massive crowds waved Iranian flags and carried pictures of founder Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The opposition has vowed to stage counter-demonstrations, but witnesses say police have deployed hundreds of officers in central Tehran to confront them.
Iranian authorities tried to block text messaging and web links in attempts to cripple protest organisers. Internet service was sharply slowed, mobile phone service widely cut and there were repeated disruptions in instant messaging services.
Opposition websites reported that protesters gathered in several places in Tehran to display green banners, but there were no immediate reports of clashes or attempts by security forces to disperse the crowds.
Opposition members went on rooftops late yesterday and shouted Allah-u-Akbar (“God is greatest”) in protest – echoing similar cries after the disputed June election, as well as the anti-Shah protests of more than three decades ago.
Since the election that brought President Ahmadinejad to power, opposition protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets.
Opposition leaders promised to join street rallies, including the Green movement founder and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Iranian officials warned that any protests will be immediately crushed by security forces. At least eight people were killed in clashes during the last major opposition marches in December.