By Glenn Kessler and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; 2:44 PM
President Obama said Tuesday that the United States and its allies are moving quickly to develop "a significant regime of sanctions" against Iran over its nuclear program, which he described as being headed toward eventually producing nuclear weapons.
In a news briefing at the White House, Obama said he drew that conclusion from Iran's refusal so far to accept a proposed deal in which it would swap the bulk of its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium fuel that it says is urgently needed for a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Obama spoke after Iran announced that it had begun producing the higher-grade enriched uranium itself, marking a new and potentially dangerous turn in Tehran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
Iran couched its announcement in terms of a pressing need for fuel at a 41-year-old, U.S.-built research reactor that produces medical isotopes for an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart and cancer patients. But in reality it means that Iran will be a significant step closer to possessing the raw material needed to build a nuclear bomb.
Indeed, Iran does not have the expertise to build the specialized fuel rods needed for the research reactor -- only France and Argentina are expert at it -- so the main consequence of Iran's decision appears to be moving up the enrichment ladder.
In response to a question at the briefing, which was largely devoted to domestic issues, Obama said, "We have bent over backwards to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation about how they can align themselves with international norms and rules and reenter as full members of the international community."
He cited the proposed uranium swap, adding that "they rejected it." He noted, however, that a major difficulty in dealing with Iran is that "it's not always clear who's speaking on behalf of the government, and we get a lot of different mixed signals."
The refusal to accept a deal advocated by the world's major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency "indicates to us that despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, that they in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization," Obama said. "And that is not acceptable to the international community, not just to the United States."
He said tougher sanctions against Iran are "the next step," although "the door is still open" for an agreement.
"And what we are going to be working on over the next several weeks is developing a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole," Obama said. "We are going to be looking at a variety of ways in which countries indicate to Iran that their approach is unacceptable. And . . . the U.N. will be one aspect of that broader effort."
He praised Russia's response to the Iranian issue as "forward-leaning," adding, "I think they clearly have seen that Iran hasn't been serious about solving what is a solvable dispute between Iran and the international community."
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to Iran's announcement Tuesday by calling for immediate and "crippling" sanctions against Iran, "not moderate sanctions, or watered-down sanctions," Reuters news agency reported.
"Iran is racing forward to produce nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told European diplomats. "I believe that what is required right now is tough action by the international community."
Iranian officials have acknowledged the difficulty of using homemade fuel to power the reactor. In an interview in December, Mohammad Ghannadi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that while Iran could try to produce the fuel itself, "there would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."
If Iran tried to fuel the reactor itself, absent international assistance, it would be risky to the reactor and for public safety, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Meanwhile, enriching uranium under the guise of medical needs will get Tehran much closer to possessing weapons-grade material. Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But Albright said 70 percent of the work toward reaching weapons-grade uranium took place when Iran enriched uranium gas to 3.5 percent. Enriching it further to the 19.75 percent needed for the reactor is an additional "15 to 20 percent of the way there."
Once the uranium is enriched above 20 percent, it is considered highly enriched uranium. The uranium would need to be enriched further, to 60 percent and then to 90 percent, before it could be used for a weapon. "The last two steps are not that big a deal," Albright said. They could be accomplished, he said, at a relatively small facility within months.
Iranian state television said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, witnessed the launch of the enrichment process on Tuesday. Iran formally notified the agency of its plans on Monday.
It is unclear whether Iran would convert only enough material to run the research reactor for a year. A year's worth of fuel would not be enough for a weapon, but if Iran converted all of its nearly 4,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium, it would have enough material for a bomb.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair told the House intelligence committee last week that "Iran has the scientific, the technical, the industrial capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years and eventually to produce a nuclear weapon. The central issue is a political decision by Iran to do so."
In Vienna on Monday, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor confirmed that the agency had received a formal note from Iran announcing plans to begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent.
"IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano noted with concern this decision, as it may affect, in particular, ongoing international efforts to ensure the availability of nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor," Tudor said in a statement.
After receiving the letter from Tehran, the IAEA told member states that it was "seeking clarifications from Iran regarding the starting date of the process for the production of such materials and other technical details," according to a Europe-based diplomat familiar with the nuclear agency's response.
The Iranian government took the dramatic action just one week after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to open the door to new negotiations on fueling the research reactor. The IAEA, along with Russia, France and the United States, had offered to provide reactor fuel by using the bulk of the low-enriched uranium produced by Iran, but the negotiations broke down late last year. The countries made the gesture in hopes of reducing Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium -- and because the fuel would be returned in metal alloy rods that could not be turned into weapons material.
Ahmadinejad's expression of renewed interest in the deal undercut the U.S. push for new sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. China seized on his statement to say it demonstrated that there was still time for negotiations before new sanctions.
The Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran for failing to halt enrichment, to little effect. U.S. officials hope a fourth resolution will provide the momentum for even tougher sanctions to be enacted by the European Union and a broad coalition that would include Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Iran's announcement Monday elicited immediate criticism from many countries involved in talks with Iran -- but China made no immediate comment.
"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," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday in Paris.
China has overtaken the European Union to become Iran's biggest trading partner, according to a new analysis this week by the Financial Times that accounted for trade between Iran and China that appears in official records as goods from the United Arab Emirates.
Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and staff writers Craig Whitlock, traveling with Gates, Joby Warrick and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.