TEHRAN — Iran lashed out against Western sanctions on Wednesday with new threats to cut oil sales to European countries and defiant claims of progress in its nuclear facilities, statements that U.S. officials dismissed as “bluster” and signs of increasing desperation within the country’s senior leadership.
On a day of confusing and sometimes contradictory claims, Iranian officials also signaled a willingness to negotiate with world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. A letter from Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator to the European Union welcomed new talks as “the best means to broaden cooperation” and defuse the crisis, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency. E.U. officials confirmed the receipt of the letter.
Iran to E.U. nations: Oil exports might stop
The offer followed fiery speeches and TV appearances by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who condemned the recent assassinations of Iranian scientists and promised retaliation against European countries that cooperated in a threatened oil embargo. Six E.U. countries were warned of a possible cutoff in Iranian oil deliveries, but hours later the country’s Oil Ministry appeared to back away from the threats.
The Obama administration dismissed the latest threats from Iran and said the apparent turmoil within the country’s senior leadership was further evidence that the West’s strategy of political and economic pressure is working.
“What we see is provocative acts, defiant acts, statements that are designed to distract attention from the demonstrated impact that the sanctions are having,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We are very confident that the sanctions have put enormous pressure on the Iranian economy and on the Iranian regime.”
Other administration officials were scornful of what appeared to a choreographed effort by Iran to highlight advances by its nuclear scientists. Ahmadinejad appeared on Iranian television on Wednesday wearing a lab coat and a face mask to tout what he described as breakthroughs in the Iran’s nuclear energy program.
Among those claims was that Iran had started loading fuel rods into an aging U.S.-supplied nuclear reactor used to make medical isotopes. Separately, state-run Iranian television announced that Iran had begun operating a new generation of centrifuges at the country’s main uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. Iranian officials have made similar claims of progress in the past.
In Washington, the State Department played down the nuclear accomplishments, describing them as “hyped” and “not terribly impressive.” Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland noted that Iran remains “many, many months behind” its own schedule.
A senior U.S. security official was similarly skeptical, noting that Iran appeared to have made only a modest step in its effort to create fuel rods for a civilian nuclear reactor.
“This in no way enhances Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear progress.