Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered his country's atomic agency to begin the production of higher enriched uranium - a move that's likely to deepen international scepticism about the country's real intentions on the crucial issue of enriched uranium.
Ahmadinejad's latest pronouncement on the issue of enriched uranium coincided with a call by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates for the international community to rally together to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear programme.
Speaking to reporters during a week-long European tour, Gates said that "if the international community will stand together and bring pressure" on Iran, "I believe there is still time for sanctions to work".
He declined to be specific about the type of sanctions he had in mind, but explained that the focus should be on putting pressure on the government in Tehran and not hurting the people.
In comments broadcast on state television, Ahmadinejad said: "God willing, 20 per cent enrichment will start" to meet Iran's needs. He did not give a date for the start of the enrichment process. He was speaking at a meeting attended by the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi.
Producing enriched uranium is the international community's core concern over Iran's disputed nuclear programme since it can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its programme is for peaceful purposes.
Iran and the West have been discussing a UN plan under which Iran would export its low-enriched uranium for enrichment abroad. The plan, which comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency, was first drawn up in early October in a meeting in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers. It was refined later that month in Vienna talks among Iran, the US, Russia and France.
The Vienna talks came up with a draft proposal that would take 70 per cent of Iran's low-enriched uranium to reduce its stockpile of material that could be enriched to a higher level, and possibly be used to make nuclear weapons. That uranium would be returned about a year later as refined fuel rods, which can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material.
In what was interpreted to be a possible shift of policy on a major issue, Ahmadinejad said last week he was ready to export his country's low-enriched uranium for higher enrichment abroad, saying Iran had "no problem" with the plan. Today's comments, however, appeared to justify the scepticism with which his Tuesday's comments were met by world leaders.
Salehi, the head of the Iranian atomic energy agency, later appeared to play down the significance of Ahmadinejad's comments. He told the official IRNA news agency the president was giving a "preparedness order" so Iran would be ready to enrich its uranium if the exchange with the West fails to take place.