Iran raised the stakes in its confrontation with the West yesterday by test-firing a missile it said could not be detected by radar and claiming a breakthrough in its nuclear programme.
Responding defiantly to the imposition of fresh US sanctions, officials in Tehran announced that they had successfully produced and tested nuclear fuel rods in an advance that Western experts had long stated was beyond Iran's technological capabilities.
If true, the development would be an important step in Iran's efforts to complete the nuclear fuel cycle, bringing it significantly closer to being able to produce a bomb. Iranian state television said the rods had been inserted into the core of the Tehran Research Reactor, where the country's most highly enriched uranium is stored, ostensibly for the development of cancer-treating isotopes.
At the beginning of last year, Iran claimed it had begun the process of creating fuel plates and rods, but the claims were given scant credence in the West.
The process of making a fuel rod requires the conversion of enriched uranium into uranium dioxide powder, which must then be pressed into small pellets that are inserted into thin metal tubes. These are then assembled in clusters for use in the core of a nuclear reactor. Sceptics said Iran lacked the technology to properly complete the process.
State media boasted that the breakthrough would confound Tehran's enemies. "This great achievement will perplex the West, because the Western countries had counted on a possible failure of Iran to produce nuclear fuel plates," the 'Tehran Times' wrote.
Western analysts remained dubious, pointing to the Islamist regime's record of exaggerating its capabilities.
As Iran celebrated one purported advance, senior naval officers also announced that a new medium-range missile capable of evading radar detection had been test-fired in the Persian Gulf, escalating tensions in one of the world's most sensitive waterways.
The launch, conducted as part of a naval exercise, came days after Tehran threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf's narrowest point, if the US and the EU were to impose sanctions on its energy sector. With up to a third of the world's oil tanker traffic passing through the Gulf, such a move would send energy prices soaring.
Undeterred by the threat, US President Barack Obama on Saturday signed into law tough sanctions that will comprehensively target Iran's central bank for the first time.
The move brings western powers closer to deploying their most potent diplomatic weapons. Until now, the West has shied away from sanctions on either Iran's central bank or its energy sector because of the consequences to the country's economy.
But amid growing warnings that Iran is closer to building a nuclear weapon, the EU and the US have shown greater willingness to heed Israel's pleas for truly "crippling" sanctions. (© Daily Telegraph, London)