By Nasser Karimi Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has approved the site for a new enrichment facility Iran plans to build, his top adviser said today, the latest step in expanding a nuclear program that the United Nations has demanded Tehran halt.
Still, in an apparent attempt to ward off new U.N. sanctions, Iran’s foreign minister said his country wants to hold further discussions on a nuclear fuel deal that was originally touted as a possible way to ease the standoff but has since hit a dead end.
The United States and its allies are trying to rally support for new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enrichment, fearing Tehran will use the process to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any intention to do so, saying its nuclear program aims only to generate electricity.
The new enrichment plant would be Iran’s third. Ahmadinejad approved the location for the new facility, his top adviser Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi said, without specifying where the site is.
Samareh Hashemi said work will begin “upon the president’s order,” without specifying when, according to the ILNA news agency today.
Iran’s government approved plans in November to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities. Earlier this year, Iran’s nuclear chief announced that construction on two of the 10 would begin during this Iranian calendar year, which runs from March 2010 to March 2011.
Iran currently has two uranium enrichment plants — one operating in the central city of Natanz and a second, near the city of Qom, that has not begun enriching.
The United Nations has demanded enrichment be suspended because the process can be used to produce a nuclear bomb as well as fuel for a nuclear reactor.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for “crippling sanctions” against Iran, including a ban on petroleum products exports to the country, to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability. In an interview broadcast Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Netanyahu said if the U.N. can’t agree on sanctions, then “a coalition of the willing” among other countries should do it on their own.
The United States has been lobbying hard with Russia and China, who have traditionally been reluctant to impose sanctions on Iran and wield veto power in the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. has already imposed three rounds of limited financial sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran would be sending delegations to China and Russia, as well as temporary council members Lebanon and Uganda, for talks on the moribund nuclear fuel deal.
Mottaki said Iran wants direct talks about the deal with all the Security Council members, except one with which it would have indirect talks — a reference to the United States, which with Tehran has no relations.
The talks halted after Iran last year rejected a U.N.-backed plan that offered nuclear fuel rods in exchange for Iran’s stock of lower-level enriched uranium — a swap would have curbed Tehran’s capacity to make a nuclear bomb.
Under the U.N. proposal, Iran was to send 2,420 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be further enriched to 20 percent and converted into fuel rods, which would then be returned to Iran.
Tehran needs the fuel rods to power a research reactor in the Iranian capital that makes nuclear isotopes needed for medical purposes. Sending its own low-enriched uranium abroad would leave Iran with insufficient stocks to further purify to weapons-grade level. Once converted into rods, uranium can no longer be used for making weapons.