US, France lead calls for sanctions against Iran
After Tehran announces plans to produce higher-enriched uranium, add 10 nuclear sites in a year, US Defense Secretary Gates and French President Sarkozy agree Islamic Republic should face 'strong sanctions' over its nuclear program. Possible targets for sanctions: Iran's central bank, Revolutionary Guards
International pressure for new sanctions against Iran grew on Monday after Tehran announced plans to make higher-enriched uranium and add 10 nuclear sites in a year, raising Western fears it wants to develop atom bombs.
The United States and France led calls for what would be a fourth, broader set of punitive sanctions, while a senior lawmaker in Russia, which in the past has urged talks rather than punishment, said economic measures should be considered.
A senior US administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called Iran's announcement "a provocative move" that was in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and risked increasing regional instability.
Among the big powers only China, which can block any UN sanctions with its veto on the Security Council, has remained unswervingly opposed to punishing the big Middle Eastern oil exporter.
Iran, which says uranium enrichment is part of its program to generate electricity, not make nuclear bombs, said on Monday it would start making higher-grade reactor fuel on Tuesday and add 10 uranium enrichment plants over the next year.
A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Tehran had notified the UN nuclear watchdog of its plan and said it would damage chances of saving a proposed atomic fuel supply deal between Iran and world powers.
Iran's government said it acted in frustration over Western powers' unwillingness to consider its requests for amendments to a UN draft plan for the powers to provide highly processed fuel material for a nuclear medicine reactor in Tehran.
Analysts said Iran would need a few months to reconfigure its Natanz plant to refine uranium to higher purity and that it lacked the technical means to build 10 more sites in the foreseeable future.
Tehran may also be having more difficulty obtaining crucial components due to UN sanctions, said the analysts, who added that the latest move might be a negotiating tactic.
Iran's plan to enrich from the 3.5 percent level suitable for power plant fuel to 20 percent would advance the Islamic Republic most of the way to having weapons-grade uranium.
Tehran says the product is destined for the Tehran reactor, but it lacks the technology to convert this material into special fuel needed to run this plant, leaving room for doubt about Iran's intentions in enriching to higher levels.
Possible targets for any new sanctions include Iran's central bank, the Revolutionary Guards who Western powers say are key to Iran's nuclear program, shipping firms and its energy sector, Western diplomats say.
Conditions set by Iran regarding a big powers plan for it to swap low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel for a medical reactor, together with its latest defiant moves, appear to have hardened Western attitudes.
The five veto-wielding UN Security Council members -- United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- plus Germany proposed the fuel swap plan.
'Today we handed over the letter'
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed on Monday that Iran should face "strong sanctions" over its nuclear program, a French official said after a meeting between the two in Paris.
"They agreed that it was time to adopt strong sanctions, in the hope of restarting negotiations," said the official, who declined to be named.
"We must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue. The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track but it will require all of the international community to work together," Gates said earlier.
In Russia, a member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party whose statements generally reflect Kremlin policy, also spoke of sanctions.
"The international community should swiftly react ... in order to send Tehran a new signal of its intent to react with serious measures, right up to a strengthening of economic sanctions," said a spokeswoman for Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house.
Although China remains opposed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month that if Iran remained intransigent it faced further sanctions even if there is no United Nations agreement to act against Tehran.
Faced by the threat, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given contradictory signals, first expressing readiness to send low-enriched uranium abroad and then saying Iran would produce 20 percent-enriched nuclear fuel itself.
Such policy swerves in Iran on the nuclear issue could also be a sign of the country's internal turmoil after a disputed election last June, which could flare again on Thursday when Iran marks the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Opposition supporters are expected to try to revive their protests over a presidential election they say was rigged, and Tehran had issued strong warnings to the opposition.
"The Iranian nation will show on (Feb. 11) how it will punch the faces of all the world's arrogants -- America, Britain and Zionists -- with its unity," state television quoted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying.
The United States and the European Union expressed concern about the potential for a renewed government crackdown.
"The large-scale detentions and mass trials, the threatened execution of protesters, the intimidation of family members of those detained and the continuing denial to its citizens of the right to peaceful expression are contrary to human rights norms," they said in a statement on Monday.
The Iranian statement on higher-grade nuclear fuel and more enrichment plants was issued by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi. It followed orders from Ahmadinejad for work to begin on producing atomic fuel.
"Today we handed over the letter," Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iran's al Alam state television.
The letter said 20 percent enrichment would start on Tuesday with the aim of later converting it to fuel and it invited UN inspectors to monitor the process, Soltanieh told Reuters.
Salehi earlier told al Alam: "Iran will set up 10 uranium enrichment centers next year." The Iranian year starts in March. Iran mooted such a plan last year but gave no time frame.
Ahmadinejad said Iran remained open to the proposed nuclear world powers' fuel exchange plan, which would remove the bulk of potential nuclear bomb material Iran has stockpiled.