Iran claimed that it will produce fuel for a research reactor that makes medical isotopes within a year, a project likely to add to Western concerns about the country's nuclear ambitions.
Iran has justified its decision to enrich uranium to higher levels by saying it would be part of the process to create fuel for its research reactor after a deal meant to provide such fuel from abroad fell apart earlier this year.
The US and its allies imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, which the West suspects might be geared toward producing weapons. Iran insists its intentions are peaceful.
Iran has a well-established program to produce low-enriched uranium up to the 3.5 per cent level needed to fuel a reactor to produce electricity. The country began in February enriching to near 20 per cent through a separate, small-scale program using low-enriched feedstock.
Although Tehran says all of its activities are geared solely toward producing nuclear fuel, it is much easier to produce weapons-grade uranium for use in nuclear warheads from 20 per cent material than from low-enriched uranium. Still 20 per cent is far short of the 95 per cent plus enriched uranium needed for an atomic weapon.
Converting 20 per cent enriched uranium into fuel rods requires sophisticated technology that Iran claims it possesses. But Western experts doubt Iran can do it.
Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran will continue to enrich uranium to the level of 20 per cent to produce fuel for the reactor in the capital Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported on Monday.
"From today, we will produce the complete fuel required for the Tehran research reactor within one year," Salehi was quoted by IRNA as saying.
Iran says its aging 5-megawatt US-made research reactor is still operating but will run out of fuel within a year or two. Salehi did not say how much fuel would be enough to keep it running, but he said the country has produced 25 kilograms of 20 per cent enriched uranium since it began in February.
Salehi, who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Iran has every right to enrich uranium to 20 per cent or at any other level.
"It is Iran's right to enrich uranium not only to the level of 20 per cent but also to any level for peaceful affairs," he said.
Salehi also said Tehran has begun to design a reactor similar to that of the Tehran research reactor in order to be able to produce medical radioisotopes for patients but didn't elaborate.