Iran’s leaders raise the stakes with show of nuclear defiance

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Iran has begun loading domestically-made nuclear fuel rods into its research reactor in a defiant response to toughening Western sanctions over its controversial police.

The country’s official news agency yesterday said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inserted the first rod into the reactor in northern Tehran while state TV broadcast live images from the ceremony with Iranian nuclear experts briefing him.

Iran touted the move as a step in its efforts to master nuclear power, despite Western penalties and UN sanctions.

The West suspects Iran wants to make atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

Yesterday’s move came as Iran said it had cut oil exports to six European countries – the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Portugal – in response to the latest EU sanctions.

This move came just days after Iran’s Oil Minister Rostam Qassemi said Tehran could cut off oil exports to “hostile” European nations as tensions rose over suggestions that military strikes were increasingly likely if sanctions failed to rein in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran argues that the EU oil embargo will not cripple its economy, claiming that it has already identified alternative customers to replace the loss in European sales that account for about 18 per cent of it exports.

Members of Iran’s parliament have been discussing a draft bill that, although not finalised, would cut off supplies to the European Union before the latest EU sanctions come into effect this summer.

Iran has said it is forced to manufacture nuclear fuel reactor rods as international sanctions ban it from buying them on foreign markets. In January, Iran said it had produced its first such fuel rod.

The country’s unchecked pursuit of the nuclear programme scuttled negotiations a year ago but last month officials in Tehran proposed a return to the talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

In the past, Iran has angered Western officials by appearing to buy time through talks and considering proposals while simultaneously pressing ahead with its nuclear programme.

Apart from the EU’s recent measures on Iran, which include an oil embargo and a freeze of the country’s central bank assets, the US also recently levied further penalties to try to limit Iran’s ability to sell oil – which accounts for 80 per cent of its foreign revenue.

Israel also is worried Iran could be on the brink of an atomic bomb and many officials believe sanctions only give Tehran time to move its nuclear programme underground, out of reach of Israeli military strikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also yesterday warned that Iran is destabilising the world and its aggression must be stopped.

In parliament, he repeated claims that Iran was behind this week’s explosions targeting Israeli diplomats in India and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

He said: “If this aggression isn’t halted, ultimately it will spread to many other countries.”

Three explosions shook a residential area of Bangkok on Monday, leading police to a stash of explosives in a rented house and the arrest of two Iranian men.

Israel said that the bombs were similar to devices used against Israeli embassy targets in India and Georgia.

Israeli ambassador Itzhak Shoham said: “From that we can assume that there is the same network of terror.”

Meanwhile, police in Thailand said a third Iranian suspect involved in the Bangkok blasts had escaped to Malaysia. They say the man boarded a flight on Tuesday night to the capital Kuala Lumpur.