Iran is installing a new generation of nuclear centrifuges capable of enriching uranium five times more rapidly than the country's existing technology, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday.
He said 6,000 of the machines would be put into production "after two to three more months of testing," and vowed in a speech laden with bombast that "the nuclear victory of Iran is the start of the ever-increasing destruction of the imperialistic state."
Iran currently has 3,000 older centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium to a level that provides fuel for nuclear energy, Iranian leaders say. A February report by the International Atomic Energy Agency mentions the existence of new centrifuges but not in such large numbers.
The Bush administration said that it could not substantiate Ahmadinejad's claims but that the basics of Iran's capabilities have not changed.
"There are always multiple claims coming out of Iran about progress on this or progress on that. I don't think that the underlining situation has changed, which is that Iran faces three separate Security Council resolutions," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Tuesday.
The United States and some other Western countries suspect that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, but a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in November concluded that Iran stopped working on an atomic bomb in 2003.
Since 2006, the U.N. Security Council has authorized three sets of sanctions against Iran, demanding a stop to all enrichment activities.
Rice urged Iranian officials to reconsider a long-standing offer put forward by the world's major powers under which the country would stop enriching uranium in exchange for major economic and diplomatic incentives, including talks with the United States and the European Union. Iran restarted its enrichment efforts in 2005 after a two-year voluntary suspension.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power plant, told Ekho Moskvy radio on Tuesday that "new positive proposals" should be put to Iran, without specifying what they might be.
The February report by the IAEA largely cleared Iran of suspicions raised earlier by the agency about the nature of the country's nuclear ambitions, but questions based on U.S. intelligence provided recently to the U.N. agency remained unresolved.
During a televised speech Tuesday evening, the Iranian president marked the country's "national nuclear day" and told an auditorium in Tehran filled with Iranian dignitaries and foreign ambassadors that "all political and economical movements in the world are connected with Iran's nuclear program, which belongs to all humanity."
After briefly explaining the advantages of the newer, faster and simpler centrifuges, he focused on the "coming destruction of the imperialistic state," meaning the West.
Speaking from a platform decorated with flowers, he described a world governed by "the victors of the Second World War," who use international institutions as tools to oppress and extort.
"The great, God-believing nation of Iran does not allow its future to be tied to the benefits of big countries. We do not play by the plan of the great powers," the president said. Powerful nations believe that they have monopolized the nuclear energy and can trample upon the rights of other states, he continued.
He also questioned the circumstances of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, asserting that the names of the victims "were never given out." The attacks were a pretext, Ahmadinejad said, "to send the largest armada to our region to attack the poor people of Afghanistan and the pure Iraqis."
"Lies have become the basis of speeches, and looting [has become] state policy," he said. "We don't want to control other nations but long for peace and justice in the world."
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany plan to meet in April to discuss whether to sweeten incentives they have offered Iran to curb its nuclear program, U.S. officials said on Monday.
The officials said the talks among senior diplomats from Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany would likely be held in mid-April in China, possibly in Shanghai, although the date and venue had yet to be fixed.
The Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for defying council demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to make fuel for power plants or atomic weapons.
Iran has refused to buckle to the sanctions and has spurned previous offers of economic benefits to suspend its uranium enrichment, which it says is to produce fuel for electrical power plants rather than for nuclear weapons.
Acting Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Dan Fried, the third-ranking U.S. diplomat, plans to represent the United States at the meeting, the State Department said, declining to specify the venue or precise date.
In June 2006, the six countries held out incentives to Iran, including civil nuclear cooperation and wider trade in civil aircraft, energy, high technology and agriculture, if Tehran suspended uranium enrichment and negotiated with the six.
A senior U.S. official made clear the Bush administration's skepticism about improving on the offer but said it would hear out the others in P5+1 who wished to do so.
"We think that the June 1, 2006, offer was generous and was reasonable but other countries have differing views and the nature of multilateral diplomacy is we have to listen to them as well," said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
Asked why Iran might respond to an improved package when it brushed off the 2006 offer as well as an earlier package of incentives from Britain, France, Germany and the United States in 2005, this official replied, "That's a good question."
"We'll see what some of the other countries think might bring the Iranians further along but, the Iranians have had almost two years to look at (the 2006 proposal) and propose some suggestions of their own and they haven't," he said.
"We are willing, within the boundaries of what is acceptable to us, to consider an elucidation of the incentive track ... but I am not aware of anything dramatically new," said another U.S. official who asked not to be named.
"NEGOTIATING WITH OURSELVES"
A Western diplomat from one of the six countries told Reuters the main focus of the meeting later this month would be how they could make the package of incentives offered to Iran in June 2006 appear more attractive.
But the diplomat said Tehran's possible upcoming announcement of its latest nuclear achievements could affect the discussion at the meeting of the six powers.
Iran on Monday ruled out halting or limiting sensitive nuclear work in exchange for trade and other incentives from major powers and instead suggested it may announce new developments in its program this week.
Iran marks its National Day of Nuclear Technology on Tuesday, an occasion Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used last year to proclaim industrial uranium enrichment capacity.
"We'll have to wait and see what the Iranians announce," the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. "That could change things."
George Perkovich, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington, doubted a sweeter offer would change Tehran's stance.
"The Iranians have not been negotiating since at least the summer of 2005 and they don't feel like they have to start now," he said. "We are negotiating with ourselves and ... we have been making the mistake of outbidding ourselves."
The U.S. and North Korea on Tuesday reached tentative agreement on the declaration of the North's nuclear programs, an issue that has been shelved for more than three months. The top nuclear negotiators of the two countries were meeting in Singapore.
If the two governments approve the deal, six-nation nuclear talks, which have been suspended since October, will likely resume in early May. Then the participating nations can begin discussions on verifying the accuracy of the declaration and the dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities.
Chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill met his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. After the meeting, Hill said, "The process went beyond Genevaï¿½ -- a reference to an earlier agreement. ï¿½Depending on what we hear back from capitals by tomorrow, I think there will be some further announcements very soon." Kim said, "The meeting proceeded smoothly. We narrowed differences in views to a considerable extent."
In their meeting, the two sides reportedly agreed on wording in the declaration, which will not be released to the public, regarding suspicions about the North's uranium enrichment program and transfer of nuclear technology to Syria. A diplomatic source said, "The wording in the declaration will probably persuade the U.S. Congress."
In Beijing on Wednesday, Hill will brief chief South Korean negotiator Chun Yung-woo and chief negotiators from China, Japan and Russia on the meeting. If the governments of the U.S. and North Korea approve the latest deal in Singapore, then they are expected to announce that the declaration issue is settled.
1. Pakistan's Nuclear Command Stays Unchanged: Official
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The command and control system for Pakistan's nuclear weapons will stay unchanged under the country's new government, made up of opponents of President Pervez Musharraf, an official said on Tuesday.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is overseen by a National Command Authority (NCA) headed by the president and with the prime minister as its vice chairman.
Key cabinet ministers and the heads of the army, navy and air force are also members of the NCA, which controls all aspects of the country's nuclear program, including deployment and, if ever necessary, the use of the weapons.
However, the military manages and controls the nuclear weapons on behalf of the NCA.
Pakistan formally set up the NCA in 2000, two years after it conducted nuclear tests in response to those of rival India, and in December last year Musharraf enforced an ordinance giving constitutional protection to the NCA.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said there would be no change to the NCA under the new government sworn-in on March 31.
"It's a constitutional body and there's no change in it," Sadiq told Reuters on Tuesday. "Overall command authority is headed by the president as a head of state."
Although Musharraf continues to head the NCA, his role has considerably weakened in national affairs since he stepped down
as army chief in November, and more so after his opponents triumphed in the February 18 parliamentary elections.
A source close to the new coalition, led by the Pakistan People's Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said the government, which enjoys close to a two-thirds majority in the parliament, had no plans to change the nuclear command structure.
"There's no reason to change anything in a hurry," the source told Reuters.
Pakistan is a major ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism but a wave of suicide bombings by al Qaeda-inspired militants to destabilize the Muslim nation, particularly after Bhutto's assassination in a gun and bomb attack on December 27, raised concerns over the safety of its nuclear weapons.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared Pakistan's weapons were well protected and he saw little chance of them falling into terrorist hands after meeting Musharraf and officials overseeing the arsenal in February.
MILITARY CONTROL NUKES
Analysts said Pakistan's new administration would have more say in the country's nuclear program but was unlikely to gain command and control of the weapon system like other nations.
"My own assessment is there may be a greater involvement of civilian rulers in the military and defense and nuclear affairs than in the past, by virtue of the fact that the present government is more representative," Talat Masood, a security analyst and former general said.
"But the security, safety and operational sides will obviously continue to remain in the hands of the military."
While all decision-making on nuclear issues rests with the NCA, an affiliated body, the Strategic Plans Division, manages and controls the nuclear weapons on behalf of the NCA.
The division is headed by a retired army general.
Pakistan's nuclear program was launched by Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the country's first popularly elected prime minister, after last of the three wars with India which ended with the surrender of the Pakistani troops and independence of the eastern wing of Pakistan as Bangladesh.
The senior Bhutto was toppled and hanged by the military in the late 1970s and since then Pakistan's nuclear program has been effectively controlled by the army.
1. CU Study: Regional Nuclear War Means Global Ozone Devastation
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In 2001, India and Pakistan nearly came to nuclear blows over Kashmir. Now, a new study shows that even a regional nuclear war could create an ozone hole around most of the planet, making skin cancer and cataract rates skyrocket, killing fish, amphibians and other organisms.
An ozone hole would last for at least a decade, according to work published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors include University of Colorado researchers Michael Mills and Brian Toon, and National Center for Atmospheric Research scientists Douglas Kinnison and Rolando Garcia.
Two years ago, the team of scientists showed that a small-scale nuclear war could kill as many people as World War II did and disrupt climate for more than a decade.
In the latest work, the scientists scrutinized the potential effect of a conflict on the Earth's ozone layer, which protects people and other organisms from damaging solar radiation.
They concluded that 25 to 40 percent of the ozone would be lost at mid-latitudes, with a 50 to 70 percent loss at northern high latitudes - the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimated that a one percent reduction in ozone concentration can lead to a one-to-three percent increase in certain types of skin cancer.
"The world has become a far more dangerous place when the actions of two countries on the other side of the world could have such a drastic impact on the planet," Toon said.
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