A senior U.S. envoy accused Iranian leaders of hypocrisy Wednesday for opting to pursue "ever more dangerous nuclear technology" instead of accepting an international plan to make sure that medical isotopes get to needy Iranian cancer patients.
The sharp criticism from Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, came a day after Iran began enriching its uranium to a higher level.
That increased international concerns about its nuclear aims and led Washington on Wednesday to impose new sanctions on several affiliates of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps over their alleged involvement in producing and spreading weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced that it would freeze assets in U.S. jurisdictions of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Rostam Qasemi and four subsidiaries of a construction firm he commands and that was hit with U.S. sanctions in 2007.
The sanctions expand existing U.S. unilateral penalties against elements of the Guard Corps, which Western intelligence believes is spearheading Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Tehran says it wants to enrich its uranium only up to 20 percent — substantially below the 90 percent plus level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads — as a part of a plan to fuel its research reactor that provides medical isotopes to hundreds of thousands of Iranians undergoing cancer treatment.
But the West says Tehran is not capable of turning the material into the fuel rods needed by the reactor. Instead it fears that Iran wants to enrich the uranium to make nuclear weapons.
The move is viewed with concern internationally because it would create material that could then be processed into weapons-grade uranium more quickly and with less effort than Iran's present stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium.
"Why is Tehran gambling with the health and lives of 850,000 Iranian cancer patients in pursuit of ever more dangerous nuclear technology?" asked Davies.
"This move is callous and chilling," he told The Associated Press.
David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said higher enrichment means Iran is getting a step closer to the ability to make nuclear weapons.
"Iran is slowly expanding its breakout capability," Albright said in an e-mail to the AP. He said achieving the 20-percent level "would be going most of the rest of the way to weapon-grade uranium."
Western powers blame Iran for rejecting an internationally endorsed plan to export its enriched uranium, enrich the material further and return it in the form of fuel rods for the reactor — and in broader terms for turning down other overtures meant to diminish concerns about its nuclear agenda.
Iran, in turn, asserts it had no choice but to start enriching to higher levels because its suggested modifications to the plan were rejected.
That plan was welcomed internationally because it would have delayed Iran's ability to make a nuclear weapon by shipping out about 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Tehran denies nuclear weapons ambitions, insisting it needs to enrich to create fuel for an envisioned nuclear reactor network.
The proposal was endorsed by the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — the six powers that originally elicited a tentative approval from Iran in landmark talks last fall. Since then, however, mixed messages from Tehran have infuriated the U.S. and its European allies, who claim Iran is only stalling for time as it attempts to build a nuclear weapon.
On Wednesday, Iranian Vice President Ali Akhbar Salehi said the process of higher enrichment was going smoothly while insisting that Iran was ready to stop any time it received the needed amount of 20-percent enriched uranium from abroad.
France and the U.S. have said Iran's action left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions to punish Iran's nuclear defiance. Russia, which has close ties to Iran and has opposed new sanctions, appeared to edge closer to Washington's position, with senior officials saying the new enrichment plans show the suspicions about Iran's intentions are well-founded.
In an online briefing Wednesday, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said that "we have no other choice today but to work with our partners to strengthen measures against Iran." And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency that "working out a new sanctions resolution (now) takes on additional relevance."
Still, he suggested Moscow was not in total sync with Western nations, saying they "are thrusting sanctions upon us."
Italy stepped up its call for U.N. sanctions on Wednesday, with Foreign Minister Franco Frattini telling news media he thought the European Union was united on the issue.
The wild card remains China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that can veto any attempts to impose a fourth set of U.N. sanction on Tehran for its nuclear defiance. Its officials continue to oppose new U.N. penalties on Iran, a key supplier of Beijing's energy needs.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged the West to "refrain from any language or threat and ... sanctions," on the sidelines of Tehran's presentation of its domestically produced Omid telecommunications satellite at Vienna's U.N. complex.
Beyond the nuclear issue, Iran's human rights record also was being criticized.
In Geneva, a senior U.S. State Department official, John Limbert, urged a U.N. rights body to shine a light on Tehran's mistreatment of prisoners, its repression of protesters and its imprisonment of journalists and intellectuals.
Limbert was among dozens of Americans held captive in Iran during its Islamic revolution in 1979-1980.
Associated Press writers Ali Akhbar Dareini in Dubai, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jenny Barchfield in Paris, James Heinz in Moscow and Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.
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