Iran starts uranium enrichment

 Iran has begun enriching uranium deep inside a mountain, angering the West and undermining hopes that diplomacy could avert further sanctions or war.

The start of enrichment at the Fordow bunker near the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom was confirmed on Monday by an Iranian official in Tehran and by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran says its nuclear programme is purely non-military but the West believes it is designed to produce nuclear weapons.

The Islamic Republic’s decision to carry out enrichment work deep underground could eventually make it much harder for US or Israeli forces to bomb, narrowing the time window for diplomacy to avert any potential attack.

The US State Department called uranium enrichment at Fordow a “further escalation” of Iran’s “ongoing violations” of UN resolutions. The European Union is expected to bring forward a meeting of foreign ministers due to decide on an oil embargo on Iran by one week to January 23. France called for measures of “unprecedented scale and severity” against Tehran. Germany and Britain also condemned it.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez mocked US disapproval and joked about having an atom bomb. “Despite those arrogant people who do not wish us to be together, we will unite forever,” the Iranian leader told Chavez during a visit to Caracas. “That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out,” Chavez said of a grassy knoll near his palace.

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