By Safa Haeri, IPS Editor

PARIS 10 Feb. (IPS) "Iran is on its way to become a great world nuclear power", an Iranian newspaper predicted, referring to President Mohammad Khatami’s announcement that Iran has mastered "complicated, modern atomic technology".

"The esteemed President of the Republic informed yesterday, on the eve of the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, that Iran has achieved modern, complicated nuclear technology know-how, meaning that in a near future, Iran will become a great nuclear power", Mr. Hoseyn Shari’atmadari, the leader-appointed Editor of the hard line evening daily "Keyhan" predicted on Monday.

The prediction would certainly help increasing concerns in Washington about Iran’s sustained efforts to build its own atomic bomb with the help from Russia and particularly North Korea.

"This happy news would anger the United States and its allies, but rejoice equally and more the Muslims, making them more confidents about the future of the Muslim world", he assured in an editorial.

President Khatami said on Sunday that Iran has built uranium-processing plants and was determined to develop nuclear technology, but he reiterated that it would be for peaceful purposes only.

"This is the legitimate right of Iranian people", he said, revealing that Iran had begun mining uranium near the city of Yazd, in central Iran, and that the country had acquired the knowledge to prepare the ore for use in civilian power plants.

The declaration surprised many Iranian and foreign observers, wandering why the President, described usually by the western press and officials as "moderate", made such a revelation at such a sensitive moment that the world is preoccupied by the Iraqi crisis?

According to Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s representative at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the announcement was part of the projects fulfilled during the year and made public on the occasion of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution’s victory (on 11 February 1979) and its coincidence with these regional development is nothing but a coincidence, but not on purpose.

"Iran has discovered reserves and extracted uranium. But I assure all peace-loving individuals in the world that Iran's efforts in the field of nuclear technology are focused on civilian application and nothing else", the powerless President said during a meeting with a number of university professors, headed by Mr. Mostafa Mo’in, the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, the official news agency IRNA reported.

He added that Iran was also planning to build two plants, one near the city of Esfahan, in central Iran and another in Kashan, situated between this town and Tehran, for processing the uranium to provide fuel for generating electricity.

"Iran had mined uranium for use in its nuclear power plants and would reprocess the spent fuel itself", Mr. Khatami announced, adding that the uranium had been extracted in the Savand area, 200 Km from the central city of Yazd, his own hometown and processing facilities had been set up in Esfahan and Kashan.

This is the first time that Iran acknowledges to the possession of advanced technology for the extraction of uranium and its reprocessing for atomic use.

In December, U.S. State Department confirmed satellite pictures showing plants at the Natanz and Arak for enriching uranium.

But according to Mr. Salehi, who was speaking on the telephone with the Persian service of Radio France International, those pictures had nothing of extraordinary or pointing to "hidden plants", -- as claimed by the Baghdad-based, Iraqi-financed, trained and supported Mohajedeen Khalq Organisation--. "Even as we had started the construction three years ago, we took Mr. (Mohammad) El-Bradeh’i (the Head of the IAEA) to the sites and showed him the places and informed him about the nature of the plants while sending all drawings and documents to the Agency’s headquarters.

In another development, state television quoted Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani as saying Iran, for the first time, had developed the capacity to produce composite solid fuels for its missiles.

"This solid fuel could be used for any kind of missile," he said after inaugurating a manufacturing plant on Sunday.

Iran makes medium-range missiles, anti-tank missiles, air- to-surface missiles and surface-to-surface guided missiles that use composite solid fuel.

Iran, which Washington has labelled a member of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, is about to finish a 1000 Megawatts, one billions US Dollars nuclear power plant in the port city of Booshehr, on the Persian Gulf, with the technological help of Russia.

Both Washington and Tel Aviv say the plant has military purposes, but Tehran and Moscow insists that it has purely a civilian use, aimed at producing electricity and reminds that inspectors from the IAEA are controlling the facility routinely.

But experts and economists, among them many Iranians, doubt Iranian claims, observing that a country that has world largest natural gas reserves second to Russia does not need complicated, difficult to maintain atomic-powered electricity installations, based on ageing, unsophisticated Russian technology on the type of Chernobyl.

Asked what answer Iran has to offer to calm down concerns about Iranian weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Salehi divided them in two parts, one, he explained, "covered with political exploitations and fanned by the press" and the other purely technical covered by international agencies monitoring such issues".

"Our policy is to complete the circle of fuel for plants for peaceful purposes", said Mr. Qolamreza Aqazadeh, an advisor to the President and Head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), adding that preliminary work had begun on a plant to produce enriched uranium, although the facility was "a long way from completion".

"The preliminary steps have taken place and very extensive research has already started", Aqazadeh told the leader-controlled television. "We have taken some steps but we still have a long way to go to have this plant come on stream", he pointed out.

In an interview with the Persian service of the BBC, Mr. Akbar E’temad, who was in charge of the AEOI under the former regime, said though it is "difficult" to assess the exact importance of revelations made by the President and Mr. Aqazadeh, "however, it shows that Iran has enough uranium to built on it the full circle of the nuclear power industry".

"In the absence of any details about the importance of the reserves and the degree of their contain of uranium, it is difficult to say whether the mines could be used and how much they can help Iran’s self sufficiency, but anyhow, it shows that Iran has the political will to acquire by itself the necessary technology needed for nuclear industry", he explained.

He also confirmed that the uranium reserves Mr. Khatami announced on Sunday could be used in the future nuclear-powered electrical stations.

"The Booshehr nuclear station is independent from the other projects and the fuel for the Booshehr plant is to be provided by the Russians based on the contract", Mr. Qolamreza Aqazadeh, an advisor to the President and Head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) explained on Monday, in an effort to dedramatise Mr. Khatami’s surprise declaration a day earlier.

"The only, but very important detail left in oblivion is that of enriching uranium, a vital technology that Iran does not possess at present and declarations by Iranian officials does not help assessing how far Iran was from that critical point", Mr. E’temad observed, pointing out that in any case, Iran could enrich uranium in other places, like in France’s Eurodif, where Iran is a member, or in Russia.

According to the former AEOI boss who signed the original Booshehr project with Germany’s giant Siemens before the Islamic revolution of 1979, there are "absolutely" no international regulations preventing Iran from creating its own nuclear industry.

"Though there are some treaties for the prevention of the proliferation of atomic technology, though some members of the atomic club, mostly the western ones, like the United States, France, Britain or Germany are reluctant in transferring the nuclear technology to other nations, but Iran can well obtain it from other sources, like South Korea or Canada", he said, noting that in order to create a "solid and independent industry, Iran should continue its present atomic projects".

"Having the nuclear know-how is not considered a threat since there are regulations on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to which Iran is a party and our steps are aimed to implement all those regulations", Aqazadeh, the former Oil Minister said, welcoming IAEA officials to visit Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mr. Mohamed el-Barade’i is to go to Iran on February 25-26, on invitation from the Iranians, to sign an additional protocol to allow IAEA inspectors to visit suspicious, undeclared sites.

"The protocol would enable the IAEA to better determine that no undeclared nuclear activity is going on", said Melissa Fleming, the IAEA spokeswoman, saying that the agency was not surprised at Iran's announcement it was mining uranium deposits for nuclear power stations and that it did not impose safeguards on natural uranium anyway.

"We have been aware of this mine and the intentions of Iran to exploit it", Fleming said, adding that a senior IAEA official visited the site in 1992. "We have no safeguards on natural uranium. These safeguards are enforced up to a certain degree of enrichment," she added.

But Mr. Aqazadeh said though the trip of Mr. el-Bradeh’i is for exchange of views with Iranian officials and there are no plans for him to visit Iranian atomic installations, yet he would be welcome in doing so.

The extracted uranium will be sent to a factory, which the country is building near Esfahan to produce "yellow cake", or uranium oxide concentrates, which is the end product of uranium processing before being sintered and made into fuel pellets.

"We started activities by drilling special wells in Ardekan of Yazd where uranium reserves lie deep underground. It now plans to build factory for the production of yellow cake" Aqazadeh explained, describing the Uranium Sintering Factory (USF) in Esfahan, which was due to be built by Chinese, as "unique" but one that Iran managed to construct it with the help of domestic industrial units and it is now on the brink of going on stream. ENDS IRAN NUCLEAR 10203