VIENNA - Iran pressed ahead yesterday with plans that will increase its ability to make nuclear weapons as it formally informed the UN nuclear agency of its intention to enrich uranium to higher levels.
Alarmed world powers questioned the rationale behind the move and warned the country it could face more UN sanctions if it made good on its intentions.
Iran maintains its nuclear activities are peaceful, and an envoy insisted the move was meant only to provide fuel for Tehran's research reactor. But world powers fearing that Iran's enrichment program might be a cover for a weapons program were critical.
Britain said the Islamic Republic's reason for further enrichment made no sense because it is not technically advanced enough to turn the resulting material into the fuel rods needed for the reactor.
France and the U.S. said the latest Iranian move left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions to punish Iran's nuclear defiance.
Even a senior parliamentarian from Russia, which traditionally opposes Western ambitions for new UN sanctions, suggested the time had now come for such additional punishment. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, told Interfax news agency the international community should "react to this step with serious measures, including making the regime of economic sanctions more severe."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already announced Sunday that his country would significantly enrich at least some of the country's stockpile of uranium to 20 percent. Still, Monday's formal notification was significant, particularly because of Iran's waffling in recent months on the issue.
Western powers blame Iran for rejecting an internationally endorsed plan to take Iranian low enriched uranium, further enriching it and return it in the form of fuel rods for the reactor - and in broader terms for turning down other overtures meant to diminish concerns about its nuclear agenda.