Iran plans to build two nuclear power plants in addition to the reactor expected to go online next year, officials and government news services said Monday.
The announcement, emphasizing the country's long-standing claim that its nuclear program is meant only for generating electricity, signaled the government's determination to proceed with a program that skeptics say might also produce atomic weapons.
"We plan to construct two more nuclear power plants," said Ali Larijani, Iran's chief negotiator on nuclear issues. "We will do it through an international tender. It is part of meeting our electricity needs. It is not a secret issue."
Larijani spoke with reporters after state television reported that the Iranian cabinet had approved the construction of a 1,000-kilowatt plant in southwestern Khuzestan province, the site of the country's richest oil fields. Reports carried by state-controlled media emphasized that the plant would be built "using local technology," language apparently intended to dampen Western hopes of persuading Iran to outsource the most sensitive elements of a nuclear program -- uranium enrichment -- to Russia.
Russia already is building an Iranian nuclear plant that is nearing completion at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. Iran plans to begin work on a second plant at the same site later this year, and its parliament has called for the eventual construction of as many as 20 plants.
In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters that Russia would sell an air defense missile system to Iran, the Reuters news agency reported. The mobile Tor-M1 system can target aircraft and guided missiles operating at low and medium altitudes, perhaps including unmanned U.S. intelligence aircraft sent into Iranian airspace from neighboring Iraq. Russian news reports said Iran would pay $700 million for 29 vehicle-based systems, each armed with tracking radar and eight missiles.
U.S. officials were sharply critical of the purchase. "We certainly do not feel that this is a sale that would serve the interests of us or the region," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Monday.
The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency is considering a U.S. request to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions over its nuclear program.
In an attempt to break an impasse in Iran's negotiations with Europe, Russia has proposed enriching uranium for Iran's nuclear energy program, thereby denying Iran the ability to independently produce weapons-grade material.
Iran has been cool to the suggestion. Larijani said the next round of talks with Britain, France and Germany would be "win-win. Having enrichment on our soil in Iran and assuring Europe that there will be no diversion in Iran's nuclear program."
Abbas Milani, an Iran analyst at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said Iran's hard-line press has been gloating over the agreement by European negotiators to resume talks, even though Iran broke an earlier agreement by resuming uranium conversion, a prelude to enrichment.
"Basically the underlying tone is: 'We told you so. If you stand up to the West, they'll buckle,' " Abbas said.
Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seeking to break an impasse with parliament over the appointment of an oil minister, nominated the acting head of the ministry to the position on Sunday. Conservative lawmakers had rejected three previous nominations to the post, responsible for overseeing production that accounts for 80 percent of Iran's export revenue.
Some Iranian lawmakers said the acting minister, Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, has a reputation as a credible insider who knows the bureaucracy. Others, however, complained that Ahmadinejad, in his three months in office, has polarized conservatives who control Iran's government and failed to consult with lawmakers who must approve his choice.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Washington contributed to this report.