Iran’s latest claim of a breakthrough in its nuclear program appears unlikely to bring it any closer to having atomic bombs, but serves rather as another defiant message to the West.
This week’s announcement that Iran has successfully made and tested fuel rods for use in nuclear power plants appeared designed to show that sanctions are failing to halt its technical advances and to strengthen its hand in any renewed negotiations with the major powers.
“The development itself doesn’t put them any closer to producing weapons,” said Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
It could be a way of telling Tehran’s foes that time is running out if they want to revive an atomic fuel swap deal that collapsed two years ago, but is still seen by some experts as offering the best chance to start building badly needed trust.
Diplomats believe Iran has in the past overstated its nuclear progress to gain leverage in its standoff with Western capitals and the testing of domestically made fuel does not mean the country is about to start using it to run reactors.
“It is a step in the direction of no longer needing supply from other countries,” associate professor Matthew Bunn of Harvard University’s Kennedy School said.
“But it will be a good number of months or years before it will be at the point where they no longer need supply from other countries,” he added.
Even if the fuel step is confirmed, it is unlikely to add much to already growing Western suspicions that Iran is seeking the capability to manufacture nuclear arms, a charge it denies.
Western powers fear that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is part of a covert bid to develop the means to build atomic weapons — suspicions that were given independent weight by a detailed UN nuclear watchdog report late last year.
The Islamic Republic says it is refining uranium — material which can have both civilian and military purposes — only for a planned network of nuclear power plants and it could point to the development of fuel rods to back this up.
Iran “still needs to pretend” that it is processing uranium in order to make nuclear fuel and not for weapons, a Western diplomat in Vienna said.
Iran’s announcement that it had produced the fuel rods and inserted them in a research reactor core in Tehran coincided with an escalating war of words with the West, in a long-running nuclear row that could spark a wider Middle East conflict.
Tehran has threatened to take action if the US Navy moves an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, its most aggressive warning yet after weeks of sabre-rattling as new US and European sanctions take a toll on its economy.
However, Iran is also sending out more conciliatory signals: Inviting senior UN nuclear inspectors to visit and suggesting a resumption of long-stalled talks with the six big powers — the US, Russia, France, Germany, China and the UK.
That may be a sign of nervousness within the leadership — as the Iranian currency tumbles to a record low against the US dollar — that tightening sanctions might hurt the major oil producer’s lifeblood crude exports.
Nevertheless, Sunday’s statement of a fuel breakthrough once again underlined Iran’s determination to press ahead with an atomic program that its clerical rulers regard as a source of power and prestige.