Iran said Monday its decision to build 10 more uranium-enrichment plants is a direct response to a resolution passed Friday at the International Atomic Energy Agency criticizing Iran for secret nuclear activities.
The plan for 10 facilities emerged from a Cabinet meeting Sunday in Tehran and has increased the global tension surrounding its nuclear program.
But Iran may not have the capacity or the money to embark on such a grandiose scheme, nor the natural uranium to fuel the plants. Construction on the scale Iran is proposing could take decades to complete.
The announcement was a defiant message to the international community, and the message has been taken seriously. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the announcement unacceptable.
The IAEA resolution and Iran's response to it appear to be overshadowing altogether the efforts of the Obama administration at diplomatic engagement with Iran. There is talk of new and harsher economic sanctions to come.
"As Iran makes choices that seem to indicate that it is not at this stage ready and willing to take up the offers on the engagement track, then we will put greater emphasis on the pressure track," Rice said.
Reaction in Europe was similar. The French foreign minister called Iran's threat "childish" and said the country is playing an "extremely dangerous game." The British foreign secretary accused Iran of provocation.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the announcement Sunday that Iran would not only refuse to curtail its uranium enrichment — as Western powers had sought — but intends to expand capacity dramatically.
"We require multiple sites to produce nuclear fuel for us," Ahmadinejad said. "We need at least 10 new sites. We must begin working on five sites now and offer locations for five others, with all the required facilities."
Ahmadinejad's announcement was a slap in the face to the IAEA. Its 35-nation board of governors adopted a resolution on Friday rebuking Iran for secretly constructing a uranium facility whose existence was disclosed only in September. Construction near the town of Fordow is not complete, and the IAEA is demanding that Iran halt the work there altogether.
The director of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the new facilities would be built inside mountains to protect them from attack.
"These sites will be located in the heart of mountains, with sizable overhangs that would protect them from any kind of attack," he said.
Salehi also said the new sites would have production levels as high as Iran's main nuclear facility at Natanz.
But most experts believe this scheme is a bluff. It has taken years for Iran to build its first uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. And although Iranian officials constantly claim they intend to install 50,000 gas centrifuges — the machines that actually enrich uranium — they have barely 4,000 up and running in the seven years since the existence of the Natanz facility was uncovered.
Still, the world needs to take Iran's intentions seriously, says Mitchell Reiss, dean of international studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
"I think it speaks again to a longer-term threat or intention on the part of the Iranian regime that they will not be deterred, they will not acquiesce, at least at this point, to what the Western powers have put on the table. It's now up to the United States to take the lead in crafting a much tougher response," Reiss said.
There is an offer on the table to provide Iran with nuclear fuel for a reactor that produces isotopes to treat cancer patients. Iran first accepted this deal, then rejected it and offered a counterproposal that the U.S. and Europe say is unacceptable.