U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said early Wednesday Iran’s decision to enrich uranium near the city of Qom was “especially troubling” and urged Tehran to return to serious talks with Western powers over its atomic program, as Tehran’s showdown with the West led to warnings that the row is sliding into dangerous territory.
“This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime’s blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country’s growing isolation is self-inflicted,” Clinton said in a statement, according to Reuters.
Clinton’s strongly worded comments repeated U.S. concerns over Iran’s announcement that it had started enrichment at the underground Fordow bunker near Qom, which came amid rising tensions between Tehran and western powers.
Iran denies Western suspicions that its nuclear program has military goals, saying it is for purely peaceful purposes.
“The circumstances surrounding this latest action are especially troubling,” Clinton said.
“There is no plausible justification for this production. Such enrichment brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.”
Clinton rejected Iran’s assertion that it needed to enrich uranium to produce fuel for a medical research reactor, saying Western powers had offered alternatives means of obtaining such fuel but their offers had been rejected by Tehran.
The United States imposed additional sanctions on Iran last month and the European Union is expected to agree on a ban on imports of Iranian crude oil later this month.
As sanctions squeeze, Iran has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, the outlet for 40 percent of the world's traded oil.
At the same time, it has called for fresh nuclear talks with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, a group known as the “P5+1,” which have been stalled for a year.
Calling on Iran to immediately halt uranium enrichment, Clinton also urged Tehran to return to talks with the P5+1 “prepared to engage seriously on its nuclear program.”
“We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution,” Clinton said.
Iran’s showdown with the West led to warnings that the row is sliding into dangerous territory, as international alarm over a new uranium enrichment plant raised the stakes.
An EU foreign ministers’ meeting on the issue scheduled for the end of this month has been brought forward to Jan. 23, an EU official told AFP.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said other major oil exporters would increase their production in order to steady world markets if the embargo is imposed.
“We have made discreet contacts in this direction. The producers don't want to talk about it, but they are standing ready,” Juppe said.
Russia, which has relatively close ties with Iran, also voiced concern on over the new plant.
“Moscow has with regret and worry received the news of the start of work on enriching uranium at the Iranian plant,” the foreign ministry was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.
China, which rejects sanctions, warned of disastrous consequences if the Iranian nuclear row escalates into conflict, while Japan said it was “very concerned.”
“We urge all relevant nations to... refrain from taking actions that will intensify the situation and make common efforts to prevent war,” Chen Xiaodong, a top Chinese diplomat on Middle East affairs said in an online interview with his country’s state press.
Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said the West’s stance was “politically motivated.”
Both Soltanieh and the IAEA stressed the U.N. nuclear watchdog had 24-hour cameras there and inspectors to keep it under watch, according to AFP.
Such assurances could not reassure Washington or its chief Middle East ally, Israel, analysts said.
“Israel, which has already warned Iran that it could take military action against installations, is very, very worried by this facility... We are moving into dangerous territory,” said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, according to AFP.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association, welcomed Clinton’s fresh call for a negotiated solution.
“The United States and its ‘P5+1’ partners -- China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom -- should continue to prepare for and more energetically pursue additional talks with Iran and continue to highlight constructive proposals they are prepared to discuss,” Kimball said in an emailed comment, according to Reuters.
“A near-term goal should be to test Iran’s recent publicly stated offer to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent levels if it could have access to fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor,” he added.
“A stockpile of 20 percent would allow Iran to shorten its time frame to produce weapons, if it chose to do so,” Kimball said. “We should not forgo any realistic opportunities to reduce that risk.”
But while Iran downplayed the significance of Fordow -- and affirmed it was ready to resume nuclear talks with world powers that collapsed a year ago -- it continued to send tough signals to states contemplating further sanctions.
Its elite Revolutionary Guards have said they are about to launch new navy maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance of the Gulf, a move aimed at showing the Islamic republic can close the waterway if its oil exports are blocked or severely curtailed.
On New Year’s Eve, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law sanctions against Iran’s central bank due to come into effect within months.
And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in Beijing in an effort to get China to drop its steadfast opposition to new sanctions on Iran and to come on board, at least to some extent.
Iran depends on oil sales for 60 percent of its government revenues and last year, it earned about $100 billion from petroleum exports. Existing sanctions have complicated payment, though.
For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that his country was “fighting to establish solidarity and justice.”