TEHRAN Iran will move its uranium enrichment plants to safer sites if necessary, a Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted on Wednesday as saying, following speculation that Tehran's enemies could attack the facilities.
The Iranian media report did not give details, but Iran has carried out preparations to shift higher-grade enrichment to an underground facility near the holy city of Qom, offering the sensitive work better protection against any military attacks.
Controversy over Iran's uranium enrichment program has resulted in Western powers imposing increasingly tight economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Israel and the United States say they have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to persuade Tehran to suspend its activities.
"If conditions require, we will move our uranium enrichment centers to safer places," the semi-official Mehr News Agency quoted Brigadier General Gholamreza Jalali as saying.
Western powers suspect Iran is trying to acquire the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful purposes such as power generation and medical use.
Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its existence.
A November report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggested that Iran pursued the science needed to make an atomic bomb at least until 2003 and that secret research may be continuing.
Iran started refining uranium last year to 20 percent purity, a level which takes it closer to the 90 percent level needed for bombs. Iran says the material will fuel a medical research reactor.
Adding to Western concern about its aims, Iran said in June it would move this higher-grade enrichment to the Fordow facility - tucked inside a mountain on a former military base - from its main enrichment plant near the central city of Natanz.
Last month's IAEA report said Iran had installed centrifuge machines to enrich uranium at Fordow and that nuclear material had been moved there, indications that enrichment may soon get under way at the site.
Iran says its response to any military action will be "painful."
"If the Americans and Israelis could attack our nuclear facilities and inflict a blow on it, they would have surely done it," said Jalali, head of Iran's Civil Defense Organization.
A hardline lawmaker, Parviz Sarvari, said on Monday that OPEC member Iran planned to carry out military maneuvers near the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, where about 30 percent of the world's crude oil exports pass through.
But Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed the lawmaker's remarks, saying it was Sarvari's personal view and did not represent Iran's official view.
However, Iranian officials have warned in the past about the
closure of the strategically important Strait as a possible retaliatory measure if the nuclear facilities were attacked.
Concerns about Iran's disputed nuclear work and threats to major shipping lanes drove up oil prices by more than $2 a barrel on Tuesday to post its biggest gain since late November, in sharp contrast to a fall in most other financial markets.
Brent crude slipped towards $109 on Wednesday.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb in Tehran and by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by David Stamop)