Iran has started putting uranium feedstock gas into centrifuges, defying the West with actual enrichment work on making what can be nuclear reactor fuel or atom bomb material, diplomats told reporters Monday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes the standoff to a new level
Uranium enrichment is seen as a red line by the United States and European Union in the long-running international standoff over Iran's nuclear program, as it is crucial to making atomic weapons.
Putting uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas into centrifuges, which distill out enriched uranium, appears a major escalation by Iran in its face-off with the West over a nuclear program which the United States claims hides secret atomic weapons development.
Iran said Monday that it would resume uranium enrichment even before the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets next month in Vienna to decide whether to recommend UN Security Council action against Tehran.
The diplomats' comments in Vienna appear to show Iran is following through with its threat.
"Iran has put gas into centrifuges at its pilot enrichment plant in Natanz," a diplomat said. The diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Iran had not yet fired up the whole 164-centrifuge cascade but had "over the past two or three days" started work with some centrifuges.
A second diplomat said Iran was doing "preliminary work" with "stand-alone" centrifuges, almost certainly putting uranium gas into single machines rather than a whole cascade.
First step in a potential full scale enrichment program
Iran has started preparation for widescale enrichment at Natanz
The diplomat said this was necessary in a step-by-step approach involving first getting centrifuges running, then operating a pilot plant, which Iran has dubbed research, and then moving on to industrial-scale enrichment with thousands of centrifuges.
Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity and that it only wants to produce low enriched uranium, which is not refined enough for weapons use. But it wants to install over 50,000 centrifuges at Natanz, an array which could produce enough highly enriched uranium every two or three weeks for one atom bomb.
Iran had suspended uranium enrichment until talks with an EU negotiating troika, aimed at winning guarantees that the program is peaceful, broke down last month.
Since August, though, it has been making the feedstock UF6 at a conversion plant in Isfahan. The West has seemed ready to let Tehran continue with this work, which technically is part of nuclear fuel activities the EU says should be suspended, as long as the Islamic Republic did not actually enrich.
Asked Monday in Tehran whether Iran would wait for the March 6 IAEA board of governors' meeting to resume industrial-scale enrichment, government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters "No, No."
One month diplomacy window slamming shut
The diplomacy window and Russia's offer have been ignored by Iran
The IAEA had voted February 4 to report Iran to the Security Council, but left a one-month window for diplomacy for Iran to return to a full suspension of enrichment-related work and cooperate more with IAEA inspectors.
The Iranian government spokesman also announced that talks between Tehran and Moscow would not go ahead as planned on Thursday.
The talks are aimed at negotiating a compromise in the standoff by having Iranian uranium enriched on Russian soil so that Tehran would not master the technology itself.
However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said Moscow still expected the Iranian delegation, adding: "Our offer for the 16th (February) still stands."
The Iranian spokesman said "new elements" were responsible for the delay, notably the fact that the Iranian government "insists that uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes is carried out inside the country."