Ahmadinejad Claims Progress In Iranian Nuclear Program

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran would not suspend enrichment of uranium, but was willing to consider talks.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran would not suspend enrichment of uranium, but was willing to consider talks. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
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By Thomas Erdbrink and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 10, 2009

TEHRAN, April 9 -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced advances in Iran's nuclear program Thursday and indicated his country would not suspend its enrichment of uranium, but he also reiterated a willingness to enter into negotiations with other countries on nuclear and other issues.

The Obama administration has said it seeks to resolve concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomacy, and U.S. officials said Wednesday they would resume participation in international talks on the program.

Ahmadinejad said he was open to such discussions, up to a point. "If there is a unilateral, conditional conversation based upon an atmosphere of threats, then no free human being would accept that. But if there is justice, equality of the two sides, respect is there, the Iranian nation is always ready for negotiations," he said.

On the occasion of National Nuclear Technology Day, Ahmadinejad spoke in the central Iranian city of Isfahan at the opening of a facility designed to prepare fuel for the light- and heavy-water reactors Iran is building. He announced the testing of two types of high-capacity centrifuges that he said would speed up Iran's enrichment capacity.

Iran's atomic chief, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said Iran has 7,000 centrifuges. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. group that monitors Iran's nuclear sites with inspections and permanent cameras, has said Iran has about 5,500 working centrifuges. The centrifuges concentrate uranium gas so it can be used as fuel to power a reactor or, in a highly enriched form, for a nuclear weapon.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton downplayed the significance of the reported increase in centrifuges. "We don't know what to believe about the Iranian program," she said, adding that the U.S. government did not "attribute any particular meaning" to Iran's statement with respect to the negotiations.

David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector, said experts learned last year that Iran was operating the nuclear fuel plant in Isfahan and that the reported increase in centrifuges could be an exaggeration. Testing of the two advanced centrifuges had been going on since 2008, he said.

"I'm relieved he's just recycling old accomplishments, rather than announcing new ones," said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "It would be seen as a slap in the face to the Obama administration if he made some dramatic announcement."

In a break from the administration of President George W. Bush, the United States said Wednesday it would rejoin direct talks among European powers, Russia, China and Iran on the nuclear program. Iran says its program is peaceful, but the United States and other governments are concerned that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials appear not to have reached consensus on the pace of Iran's efforts to develop a weapon. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told Congress in March that Iran has not decided to pursue the production of weapons-grade uranium and the parallel ability to load it onto a ballistic missile. "Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015," Blair said.

Earlier in March, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, said he thought that Iran had enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on the same day that Iran was "not close to a weapon."

The United States and other countries insist Iran suspend enrichment before wide-ranging talks can proceed. "That is a fundamental international community requirement for us to be satisfied that Iran is pursuing a peaceful nuclear program," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Thursday.

Ahmadinejad, in his speech, made clear that Iran does not intend to yield on enrichment. He recalled how his government, after coming to power in 2005, promptly ended a suspension initiated by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

"I want to draw your attention to a few years before, and then we will see what we should do now," Ahmadinejad said, describing a 2005 trip to Iran's then-mothballed nuclear centers.

"We saw that everything was sealed, even the electric saw. The scientists and youths were sad," he said.

"It was natural that our nation not accept these conditions, and it didn't," he said, recalling that not much later, U.N. seals were broken and Iran started its centrifuges.

Sheridan reported from Washington. Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoei in Isfahan contributed to this report.

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