ARAK (Reuters) â€” Iran’s president launched a new phase in the Arak heavy-water reactor project on Saturday, saying Tehran would not give up its right to nuclear technology despite Western fears it aims to make atomic bombs.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was speaking just days before an August 31 deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iran to halt uranium enrichment â€” the West’s biggest worry in Iran’s atomic programme â€” or face possible sanctions.
“No one can deprive a nation of its rights based on its capabilities,” Ahmadinejad said in his speech to inaugurate the heavy-water project.
The Arak project, once complete, will produce plutonium as a by-product that could be used to make atomic warheads. But the reactor that will produce this is still being built.
Western nations accuse Iran of seeking to master technology to produce nuclear weapons. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, insists it only wants to produce electricity.
“Iran is not a threat to anybody, not even to the Zionist regime,” Ahmadinejad said, using Iran’s term for its arch-enemy Israel, which the Islamic republic does not recognise.
Although Iran faces possible sanctions if it does not heed the UN deadline, divisions among world powers over how to handle the Islamic republic could delay any action.
The Los Angeles Times reported Washington had indicated it was ready to form an independent coalition to freeze Iranian assets and restrict trade if necessary. Analysts say sanctions imposed by just a few states would have limited impact.
A White House spokeswoman said on Saturday the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany were consulting about Iran’s response to the package of incentives the six offered Tehran to halt uranium enrichment.
“We all share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Iran is likely to raise further fears in Western capitals by pressing ahead with the heavy-water project near Arak, 190km southwest of the capital Tehran.
â€œAn Iranian official said the project is not a proliferation risk because heavy- water has no military use. Diplomats say it is not a constructive step.
“It’s not a proliferation risk in itself, but the associated operations â€” still to be constructed â€” would be.
â€œAnd the timing seems particularly poor,” said a Vienna-based diplomat familiar with operations of the UN nuclear watchdog in Iran.
The UN Security Council resolution setting the Aug. 31 deadline to halt enrichment also cited a call by the UN watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for Iran to reconsider building its heavy-water reactor project.
The Arak complex was protected by dozens of anti-aircraft guns and surrounded by a four-metre high barbed wire fence.
Photographers and TV journalists were asked not to take any images except in areas where they were specifically permitted.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, told the students’ ISNA news agency that IAEA inspectors would visit Arak next week.
Inspectors routinely visit Iranian facilities but diplomats say a group was recently denied access to an Iranian underground site. Iran denies hindering routine access but earlier this year stopped allowing snap checks of its facilities by inspectors.
The West’s main concern is Iran’s programme for enriching uranium, a process that can be used to make fuel for nuclear power stations or material for bombs.
But Iran has so far refused to stop the work and shrugged off the threat of sanctions, saying it would push already soaring oil prices higher still, hurting industrial nations.
Iran’s deputy parliament speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, warned the West in comments published by Iran’s Sharq newspaper on Saturday that putting pressure on the country could prompt public calls for Iran to pursue a weapons programme.
“Be afraid of the day that the Iranian nation comes into the streets and stages demonstrations to ask the government to produce nuclear weapons to combat the threats,” he said.
Iran, responding to the incentives offered by the six world powers, has only hinted it might be ready to consider halting uranium enrichment as a result of talks, not as a precondition.
The reply seemed designed to divide opinion among the six powers.
The United States has warned of swift action on sanctions.
Britain, Germany and France have been less conclusive in public. But Russia and China, both trade partners of Iran, have been unwilling and could veto sanctions in the Security Council.