In a possible move to deflect attention from Iran's political woes, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Sunday ordered the nation's atomic energy agency to begin enriching uranium from 3.5 percent to 20 percent purity to serve as fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.
"Please start 20 percent enrichment, though we are still in talks about a fuel exchange," he told Iran's atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, during a live television appearance. "We are ready for exchange. But if the Western governments don't like an exchange, we go our own way."
The West accuses Iran of dragging its feet in responding to a UN-backed proposal to exchange the bulk of its enriched uranium supply for reactor fuel plates for the Tehran medical reactor. Tehran accuses the West of refusing to negotiate in good faith or to address Iranian concerns about details of the deal.
With talks faltering, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that Washington and its allies would consider new sanctions to pressure Iran into curbing aspects of its nuclear program.
But any move by Iran to produce a 20 percent-enriched nuclear fuel supply would provoke Western nations and Israel, which suspect Tehran ultimately plans to build nuclear bombs, which require highly enriched uranium.
Ahmadinejad's publicly aired command to increase Iran's enrichment levels was immediately downplayed by Salehi, who described it as an "alert order" meant to spur the West to make a deal with the Islamic Republic.
"It means that the time is running out for the West to agree to swap fuel with Iran," he said. "We will definitely begin our 20 percent enrichment if the West hesitates."