TEHRAN Iran will push ahead with a major expansion of its uranium enrichment capacity, its nuclear chief said on Monday, despite international sanctions meant to force the Islamic Republic to curb its nuclear program.
The latest comments by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Organization, come ahead of a resumption of talks at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the fuel swap deal. Success in those talks could pave the way for broader negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program.
But Western officials have raised doubts about the potential of those talks now that Iran has started 20 percent enrichment and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has grown.
More enrichment plants could further complicate those talks.
Salehi said Iran had identified locations for 10 new enrichment plants and would start work on one of them by March.
"Finding the location for the construction of 10 more uranium enrichment plants in Iran is over now," he told state broadcaster IRIB.
"The construction of one of these sites will start by the end of this (Iranian) year or the beginning of the next year." The Iranian year ends on March 20.
Iran said in February it had started enriching uranium to 20 percent, something analysts said meant it could advance to weapons-grade level within months should it wish to.
Tehran has said it was forced to enrich uranium to 20 percent after the breakdown of a deal with Western powers and the IAEA under which it would have sent some of its LEU abroad in return for fuel rods for a medical reactor.
Iran revealed the existence of a second enrichment plant last October, buried inside a mountain on a military base secured by the elite Revolutionary Guards near the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran.
Salehi told Reuters in February that Iran would start construction of two new enrichment sites by March 2011.
Since then Iran has been hit by sanctions from the U.N. Security Council and tougher measures by the United States, the European Union and several other countries concerned that Tehran's nuclear program may be a cover for getting a bomb.
Washington called on Monday on countries to increase their vigilance against Iranian shipping which it sees as a "critical lifeline for Iran's proliferation and evasion.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has rejected the sanctions as toothless and Iran's parliament has passed legislation obliging the government to fight "bullying" by big powers and retaliate against any countries that try to inspect Iranian ships.
Iran said last week its first atomic power station, the Russian-built Bushehr plant, would come on stream by September after years of delays.
Washington said support from Russia for the power plant showed Iran did not need "an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful." But Salehi rejected that position as "unscientific," underscoring Iran's position that it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium to any level it wishes.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Hemming)