(JTA) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered his country’s nuclear agency to begin enriching uranium at a higher level in order to fuel a medical research reactor.
The order given live Sunday on Iranian national television comes just days after Ahmadinejad said on state television that he would be willing to export enriched uranium for further enrichment for use in the reactor.
"Please start 20 percent enrichment, though we are still in talks about a fuel exchange," Ahmadinejad told Iran’s atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi. "We are ready for exchange. But if [the Western governments] don’t like an exchange, we go our own way."
Iran faces another round of international sanctions over its refusal to curtail its nuclear program, which Western countries believe is working to create a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for domestic use only.
"If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Rome. "But we must all work together."
Ahmadinejad’s statement last week — that sending the uranium to a European country for further enrichment is "no problem" — was an about-face after the Islamic Republic formally rejected a similar proposal brokered several weeks ago by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Under the plan, Iran would relinquish the bulk of the uranium it had enriched to low levels for further enrichment in Russia and then in France to medical research levels before it would be returned. This would also keep the uranium out of Iran’s hands for about eight months.
Six world powers, including the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — United States, China, Russia, Britain and France — as well as Germany met last Friday to discuss Iran, but China has rejected discussion of further sanctions. The United States has said that Tehran’s on-again, off-again willingness to discuss exporting its uranium is a way to delay more sanctions.