Iran to build nuclear plants to 'meet electricity needs'

By Anne Penketh

Iran has announced plans to construct two more nuclear power plants, in a defiant gesture to the West which hoped to resume talks on curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions before the end of this month.

Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said he did not expect the plan to affect the resumption of the nuclear talks with Britain, France and Europe which were broken off in August.

"We plan to construct two more nuclear power plants. We will do it through an international tender.

"It is part of meeting our electricity needs; it is not a secret issue," Mr Larijani said.

Iran's first nuclear reactor is being built with Russian help in Bushehr, and is due to begin generating electricity next year.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the timing of the announcement appeared to be "part of a pattern of belligerent rhetoric" from the hardline Iranian regime in recent weeks.

The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, confirmed yesterday that Moscow had signed a deal to sell Tor short-range ground-to-air missiles to Iran, but stressed that "this unequivocally will not change the balance of forces in the region."Israel and the US, which fear that Iran is bent on developing a nuclear bomb under cover of a civilian programme, have expressed concern at the deal.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused a diplomatic storm in October when he said that Israel should be "wiped off the map." Israel's former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed support for a pre-emptive strike to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Russia is attempting to coax Iran back to the negotiating table with the Europeans by offering to set up a joint venture to enrich nuclear material for Iran - which has insisted on its rights to control the full nuclear fuel cycle.

Enrichment is a critical issue as it can lead to the production of weapons-grade fuel.

The Europeans broke off talks with Iran after the Iranians re-opened their Isfahan plant and began converting uranium into gas, the precursor to uranium enrichment.

But so far they have continued to observe a freeze on nuclear enrichment.

The French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, suggested that the Iranians had already rejected the Russian compromise, which could lead to a new crisis and the possible referral of Iran to the UN Security Council.

British officials said however that Iran had yet to respond officially to the Russian proposals.

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