Iran advances enrichment amid ongoing unrest

PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced new advances in Iran’s uranium enrichment drive yesterday, as government supporters rallied en masse and the opposition reported clashes on the 31st anniversary of the revolution that brought the clerical establishment to power.

State television said “tens of millions of people” attended rallies in support of the Islamic revolution across the country, which is amid its worst domestic crisis in three decades.

Opposition supporters have rallied round reformists who lost to Ahmadinejad in a disputed election last June, and refused to yield to government demands to halt protests.

Ahmadinejad told a vast, flag-waving crowd of government supporters in central Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square that Iran was now able to enrich uranium to more than 80% purity, coming close to levels experts say would be needed for a nuclear bomb, although he again denied any such intention.

“The Iranian nation is brave enough that if one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you,” Ahmadinejad said, addressing Iran’s Western enemies.

But he told the crowd: “When we say that we don’t build nuclear bombs, it means that we won’t do that because we don’t believe in having it.”

State television showed live footage of hundreds of thousands of people, some carrying Iranian flags and pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, walking to the square.

An opposition website, Iran’s Green Voice, said security forces fired shots and tear gas at supporters of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi staging a Tehran counter-rally. Another opposition site, Norooz, said 30 people were arrested in one Tehran square. The opposition Kaleme website said Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard was beaten by plainclothes agents with batons during yesterday’s rallies.

Opposition site Jaras said at least 100 mainly young protesters were detained in the north-eastern city of Mashhad, and there were some “limited” clashes with security forces. It said more than 20 people were detained in the southern city of Shiraz, as anti-riot police sought to prevent protesters from gathering.

The reports could not be verified independently because foreign journalists were escorted to Azadi Square and are not at liberty to cover opposition rallies.

In January, Iran hanged two people sentenced to death in post-vote trials. At least nine others are appealing such sentences.

The country faces growing Western calls for a new round of targeted UN sanctions against it after Ahmadinejad this week ordered a start to production of higher-grade uranium.

Iran says it moved to produce the 20% enriched uranium for a Tehran research reactor making medical isotopes out of frustration at failure to reach agreement on a uranium exchange with world powers.

“By God’s grace... it was reported that the first consignment of 20% enriched uranium was produced and was put at the disposal of the scientists,” Ahmadinejad said. “In the near future we will treble its production.”

Iran had previously purified the fuel to just 3.5%, the level required for a nuclear power plant.

Western experts say the jump to 20% is a major technical leap towards enriching uranium to the 90%-plus that would be needed for a nuclear bomb.


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