Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Iran 'makes first batch of 20% enriched uranium'

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed crowds marking the anniversary of Iran's revolution

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said his country has produced its first batch of uranium enriched to 20%.

The statement, made at a rally marking Iran's revolution, comes days after Tehran revealed it was starting the new phase at its Natanz plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report on Wednesday that Iran would start producing 20% enriched uranium "within a few days".

Until now, Iran has produced uranium enriched to 3.5% for power stations.

It says it needs the more highly enriched uranium for a reactor producing medical isotopes.

But Western experts say that even if Iran produces more highly enriched uranium, it lacks the capability of turning the material into fuel rods needed by the reactor.

Western powers fear Iran is heading towards enriching uranium to 90% - to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful.

BBC graphic
Iran says it is increasing uranium enrichment from 3.5% needed for commercial nuclear reactors
Iran says it has started enriching to 20%, needed for a research reactor near Tehran
Weapons-grade uranium is at least 90% enriched
Experts say achieving 20% is a key step towards weapons grade

"I would like to say to you that the day before yesterday the enrichment of fuel at 20% started," President Ahmadinejad told huge crowds marking the 31st anniversary of Iran's revolution, in Tehran on Thursday.

"I would like to notify you and announce with a loud voice that - thank God - our chief nuclear negotiator announced that the produce of fuel at 20% started under the watchful eye of our scientists."

He added: "They all know that right now in Natanz, we have the capacity to enrich uranium at high levels.

"We have the capacity to enrich above 20, even 80%. But because we have no need, we won't do that."

In a confidential report to member states, seen by news agencies, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Iran's output of up to 20% enriched uranium would remain modest.

But experts say Iran could convert a stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to weapons grade material within six months.

The nation is already subject to UN sanctions because of its nuclear programme.

Tougher sanctions

On Wednesday the US stepped up pressure on Tehran by imposing further sanctions against companies connected with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

The companies' profits helped fund Iran's nuclear and missile programmes, the US Treasury said.

Earlier, President Barack Obama said the US and its allies were moving "fairly quickly" towards imposing additional fresh sanctions on Iran.

On Thursday UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown also said Iran would face tougher sanctions if it continued with its uranium enrichment programme and crackdown on opposition groups.

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