UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am
IRAN - Iran will begin enriching uranium to 20 percent from Tuesday, the Islamic republic's atomic chief announced on Sunday just hours after being told to do so by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The decision raises the stakes in a dispute with the West less than a week after Iran had appeared to accept a UN-drafted nuclear deal on the supply of fuel for a research nuclear reactor in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad's move drew fire from Britain and the United States, and analysts said it was a bid to exert pressure on Washington and drive a wedge between the six powers over attempts to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
"We will inform the IAEA in a letter tomorrow (Monday) of our intention to enrich uranium to 20 percent," Ali Akbar Salehi told the Arabic-language Al-Alam television, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"The higher enrichment will begin at the Natanz plant from the day after tomorrow (Tuesday)," he added. Natanz is in the central province of Isfahan.
Earlier, in a speech at an exhibition on laser technology broadcast live on state television, Ahmadinejad blamed world powers for the stalemate over the stalled nuclear fuel deal.
"I had said let us give them (world powers) two to three months and if they don't agree, we would start ourselves," he said.
"Now Dr Salehi, start to make the 20 percent with the centrifuges," he told the atomic chief who was in the audience, referring to high-enriched uranium required to make fuel to power the research reactor.
Britain and the United States condemned the declaration.
"Reports that Iran is planning to enrich some of their fuel to 20 percent level of enrichment are clearly a matter of serious concern," a spokeswoman for the foreign office said in London.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called for mounting "international pressure" on Iran.
"The international community has offered the Iranian government multiple opportunities to provide reassurance of its intentions. The results have been very disappointing," Gates said in Rome.
"If the international community will stand together and bring pressure on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and pressure to work. But we must all work together."
World powers fear that Tehran wants to enrich uranium to very high levels for use in an atomic weapons programme, and therefore want to remove its low-enriched uranium (LEU) through the UN-drafted deal.
Iran insists that its nuclear enrichment drive is purely peaceful.
Tehran and world powers are locked in a stalemate over the UN-drafted deal, which envisages Iran's 3.5 percent LEU being sent to Russia and France for enrichment to 20 percent and then returned as fuel for the reactor.
Ahmadinejad insisted that world powers "unconditionally" accept exchanging Iran's LEU for high purity 20 percent enriched uranium for the Tehran reactor, which makes medical isotopes.
His statement comes after he indicated in an interview on state television last Tuesday that Iran was ready to send its LEU abroad for conversion into 20 percent nuclear fuel.
Iranian officials have opposed the UN-brokered proposal, saying they would prefer a simultaneous exchange on Iranian soil — a stance rejected by world powers.
Ahmadinejad said on Sunday that if the world powers "come forward and say 'we will exchange (uranium) unconditionally and cooperate on your reactors and medicine'... fine then we will cooperate" too.
Analysts said Ahmadinejad's latest declaration aimed at raising the pressure on the West, particularly as some of the six powers engaged in talks on Iran's nuclear drive are still hesitant to back a fourth round of sanctions.
"Ahmadinejad wants to put pressure on the West, especially the US. He was responding to those in the West who do not want Iran to strike a deal," Iranian analyst Mohammad Saleh Sadeghian told AFP.
"I think that Iran prefers a swap deal over the option of producing the fuel" of 20 percent enriched uranium itself, he added.
A Western analyst who asked not to be named said Iranian declarations such as Ahmadinejad's on Sunday were attempts to "delay potential sanctions by dividing the six world powers without backing down on the nuclear programme."
The head of the Qods conservative daily, Gholam Reza Ghalandarian, said Iran was willing to negotiate "but when the West speaks of sanctions, Iran does not accept it and announces it will pursue its nuclear programme."