Iran raised the stakes in an increasingly heated confrontation with the West on Sunday, test-firing a missile it said could not be detected by radar and claiming an unexpected breakthrough in its nuclear programme.
By Adrian BlomfieldThe Telegraph
Responding defiantly to the imposition of fresh US sanctions, officials in Tehran announced that they had successfully produced and tested nuclear fuel rods in an advance that Western experts have long stated is beyond Iran’s technological capabilities.
If true, the development would represent an important step in Iran’s efforts to complete the nuclear fuel cycle, bringing it significantly closer to being able to produce a nuclear bomb.
Iranian state television reported that the rods had been inserted into the core of the Tehran Research Reactor, where the country’s most highly enriched uranium is stored, ostensibly for the development of cancer-treating isotopes.
At the beginning of last year, Iran claimed that it had begun the process of creating fuel plates and rods at itsnuclear plant in the central city of Isfahan. The claims were given scant credence in the West because the ability to manufacture the rods is possessed by only a handful of major nuclear powers.
The process of making a fuel rod requires the conversion of enriched uranium into uranium dioxide powder, which must then be pressed into small pellets that are inserted into thin metal tubes. These are then assembled in clusters for use in the core of a nuclear reactor. The rods can be used for civilian purposes, but if reprocessed could produce fuel for a nuclear weapon.
Sceptics said Iran lacked the technology to disperse the fuel evenly through the fuel matrix.
State media outlets boasted that the breakthrough would confound Tehran’s enemies.
“This great achievement will perplex the West, because the Western countries had counted on a possible failure of Iran to produce nuclear fuel plates,” the Tehran Times wrote.
Western analysts remained dubious, however, pointing to the Islamist regime’s record of exaggerating its capabilities in the past.
As Iran celebrated one purported advance, senior naval officers announced that a new medium-range missile capable of evading radar detection had been test-fired in thePersian Gulf, escalating tensions in one of the world’s most sensitive and strategic waterways.
The missile launch, conducted as part of an Iranian naval exercise, came days after Tehran threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf’s narrowest point, if the US and the EU were to impose sanctions on its energy sector.
With up to a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic passing through the Gulf, such a move would send energy prices soaring and pose a serious threat to the global economy.
The move brings Western powers closer to deploying the most potent weapons in their diplomatic arsenals.
Until now Western powers have shied away from sanctioning either Iran’s central bank or its energy sector because of the devastating consequences such actions would have on the country’s economy.
But amid growing warnings that Iran is closer than ever to building a nuclear weapon, the EU and the United States have shown greater willingness to heed Israel’s pleas for truly “crippling” sanctions.