Iran has attempted to strike a blow against international efforts to curb its nuclear ambitions by announcing that it will today begin fuelling its research reactor in Tehran with domestically enriched uranium. The announcement is significant not only due to the increased independence of Iran's supply of fissile material, but also because it is now producing uranium at higher concentration than is needed for domestic power generation.
The reactor in Tehran, which requires a far higher concentration of U235 in its fuel than a standard power station, had until today been running on a limited supply of uranium provided by Argentina. Iran's newly developed capability to produce fuel enriched to 20 percent U235 secures its ability to continue research into nuclear energy.
More worrying for the international community is the fact that this milestone brings Iran much closer to accumulating a stockpile of uranium useable in nuclear weapons. The 20 percent fuel loaded into the Tehran reactor in the presence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today only just falls short of the "highly enriched" designation banned under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and highlights the progress Iran has made toward production of 90 percent-plus weapons-grade fuel.
Today's announcement fits into a longstanding pattern of rhetoric emanating from Tehran, designed to convince the international community that it is unable to stop Iran's quest to become a nuclear power. However, to take Iran's posturing at face value would be a mistake. Despite the reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions and the deliberately orchestrated pomp surrounding today's announcement, Iran is facing real difficulties thanks to the growing strength of the international sanctions regime.
Tehran made clear its plans to enrich to 20 percent as long ago as 2009, when it failed to secure another supply of fuel rods from overseas. Given the increasing evidence of the economic impact of sanctions targeting the country's oil exports, HJS Non-Resident Associate Fellow Sohrab Ahmari said:
"The Iranian regime is on the retreat on numerous fronts. Tehran's sense of frustration is apparent in its increasingly shrill rhetoric and desperate assassination attempts in Georgia, India, and Thailand. But this is no time for a respite in the West. The international community must now ensure that the sanctions regime is enforced vigorously and uniformly, that all loopholes are closed, and that major Asian consumers in world oil and gas markets - including the likes of India, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea - are brought on board."
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