REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Iran has begun enriching uranium at a new underground site, a leading Iranian newspaper reported Sunday, a move likely to ratchet up tension with the West over the country’s disputed nuclear program.
The Fordo nuclear complex, built into a mountain near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom, is said to have more sophisticated centrifuges used to enrich uranium and to be better protected from possible airstrikes by foreign powers than a facility in Natanz in central Iran.
“The transfer of uranium enrichment to Fordo means that the option of a military threat against the nuclear program of Iran is taken off the table for good,” the Kayhan daily said in a front-page report Sunday. “The West will have to gradually accept the immunity of the program against any interference by foreigners.”
The announcement came at a time of escalating tension over Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States and its allies suspect is aimed at developing weapons. Iran maintains the program is for peaceful purposes only.
President Obama recently approved new sanctions targeting financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank, a bid to make it more difficult for the country to sell its oil. The European Union is also considering additional measures, including a possible oil embargo.
Iranian officials have threatened to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic choke point through which passes tanker ships carrying about a fifth of the world’s oil exports, a threat repeated Sunday in another Iranian newspaper.
"If enemies block the export of our oil, we won't allow a drop of oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” Ali Ashraf Nouri, deputy commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard, was quoted as saying by the Khorasan daily.
At the same time, Iran has called for a new round of talks on its nuclear program with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. The last negotiations between Iran and the group –- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -– were held a year ago in Istanbul, Turkey.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency on Saturday that the Fordo facility would start up “in the near future,” according to a report on the agency’s English-language site. (A Farsi language report on Abbasi's comments left ambiguous whether the plant would begin operations soon or merely hold a ceremony marking its opening.)
But Kayhan, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said Iran had begun feeding uranium gas into upgraded centrifuges at Fordo, a step toward creating enriched fuel. "Yesterday, Kayhan received reports showing that, at the height of the foreign enemy's threats, Iran has begun uranium enrichment at the Fordo facility," the newspaper said.
The seemingly conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
Iran already has a major uranium enrichment facility in Natanz that has been operating since 2006 and has about 8,000 centrifuges. The country’s first efforts were aimed at enriching uranium to a concentration level of less than 5% uranium-235, which is suitable for use in a power reactor.
In February 2010, Iran began to further enrich part of its stockpile to 20%, saying it needs the higher-grade material to produce fuel for a reactor that produces medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients. The development raised concern in the West because the higher-grade uranium can be more quickly converted into fissile material for a nuclear warhead, which would generally need to be enriched to 80% or 90%.
Abbasi told Mehr that the Fordo facility is capable of producing uranium enriched to 3.5%, 4% and 20%.
Iran confirmed the existence of the facility in September 2009 after it was detected by Western intelligence agencies.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Zavis in Beirut
Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2008. Credit: Office of the president of Iran