Iran announced Tuesday it had successfully enriched uranium to make nuclear fuel, a dramatic breakthrough in its disputed atomic drive that defies a UN Security Council demand for the work to be halted.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to speed up research
The announcement came just 15 days before the expiry of a Security Council deadline for Iran to freeze enrichment -- a process that can be extended to make the fissile core of an atom bomb.
In a speech carried live on state television, vice president and atomic energy chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh announced that "on April 9, we successfully enriched uranium to 3.5 percent," the purity required for civilian reactor fuel.
Gholam Reza Aghazadeh
Aghazadeh said the progress in enrichment "paves the way for enrichment on an industrial scale", and revealed Iran also had 110 tons of UF6 gas -- the feedstock gas that is fed into centrifuges to be enriched.
He also said Iran was "determined" to complete work on a heavy water reactor in Arak, which could also produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon, within three years.
The announcement, made in the northeastern city of Mashhad before top regime officials, was greeted by chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Greatest").
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, whose government accuses the Islamic republic of seeking nuclear weapons, immediately responded that Iran was "moving in the wrong direction."
Ahmadi n ejad wa n ts to speed up work
Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the work to be accelerated.
"I ask all nuclear officials to speed up their work so as to produce fuel for the country's (future) power stations," Ahmadinejad said in his speech.
A reactor building of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant
On March 29, the Security Council called on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment to provide a watertight guarantee that its nuclear programme is peaceful, with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei asked to report on Iranian compliance after 30 days.
ElBaradei is also due to arrive in Tehran overnight Wednesday, but Iran -- which insists it only wants to generate nuclear power -- has so far rejected the ultimatum despite the threat of sanctions or even military action.