Iran plans to resume its nuclear program


CAIRO, Egypt - Iranian officials said yesterday that Iran will soon resume its controversial nuclear work, and announced that scientists have developed solid-fuel technology to improve the accuracy of missiles already able to reach Israel and nearby U.S. bases.

The tough talk comes just days before Iran's new president is to be sworn in. Ultra-conservative Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the upset victor in this summer's election, has criticized Iran's nuclear negotiators for caving in to pressure from the West.

Iran froze its nuclear activities in November to build trust in their talks with Europe. But the suspension was always described in Tehran as a temporary concession, and Iranian officials argue that the country has the right to develop nuclear technology. Iran insists it wants the technology to build power plants, but the United States suspects Iran of working to develop weapons.

Iran won't immediately resume uranium enrichment, outgoing President Mohammad Khatami told reporters yesterday. But scientists will soon go back to work converting uranium to gas. That gas, in turn, can be enriched to make weapons or fuel for power plants.

Iran has been waiting for European negotiators, who have the backing of the United States, to put together a package of economic incentives aimed at convincing Tehran to forego its nuclear ambitions. The European proposal is due early next month.

But yesterday, Khatami said that Iran will resume the conversion work at its plant in Isfahan once the European proposal has been received - with or without the approval of the Europeans.

"It was expected that they will agree to Isfahan restarting activities," Khatami told reporters. "We prefer to do it with their agreement. If they don't, then the decision to resume activities in Isfahan has already been taken by the ruling system."

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Associated Press that Iran has taken an "important step forward" with a successful test of a solid-fuel engine for its Shahab-3 missile.

The Shahab-3 - "shooting star" in Farsi - is capable of carrying a warhead into Israel. Iran's Revolutionary Guards have had the missiles since 2002.

"We have fully achieved proficiency in solid-fuel technology in producing missiles," Shamkhani said yesterday. It was the first time that Iran had acknowledged developing solid-fuel missile technology.

The solid fuel is important because it can make missiles more durable and accurate, and can also increase their range. But several analysts also saw yesterday's announcement as a sort of boast. Solid-fuel technology is difficult to develop, and has historically presented a challenge to such nations as China and the former Soviet Union.

"It's an important step forward, an important achievement. It's a locally developed achievement," Shamkhani said.

So far, no test flight of the Shahab-3 has been carried out with solid fuel, Shamkhani said. But Iran has used solid fuel with the Fateh-110 short-range missile, a surface-to-surface guided missile with a range just over 100 miles.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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