TEHRAN, April 11 — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today that Iranian scientists had achieved the goal of enriching uranium for its nuclear power program and that the nation was determined to develop production on an industrial scale.
“The nuclear fuel cycle at the laboratory level has been completed, and uranium with the desired enrichment for nuclear power plants was achieved,” Mr. Ahmedinejad said in a speech that was broadcast live from the city of Mashad.
“Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world,” he later added. “This is a starting point for more major points of success for the Iranian nation.”
The White House, which has charged that Iran is secretly attempting to develop fuel for nuclear weapons, reacted mildly to the announcement, saying the country was “moving in the wrong direction.” Outside experts said that while Iran appears to have passed a milestone – one it has approached before with smaller-scale enrichment of uranium – the announcement today was designed chiefly for political impact.
On Wednesday night, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, is scheduled to arrive in Tehran to make another appeal for the country to halt its enrichment program and avoid a confrontation with the West. Iranian officials said that Mr. ElBaradei would face a changed situation, and American officials say they suspect that Iran’s strategy is to portray its effort as a fait accompli that cannot be reversed.
Yet it is a setback for President Bush, who declared on Monday that one of his goals was to make sure that Iran never obtained the knowledge of how to enrich uranium, even at research-scale levels. They appear to have already passed that point. And if the Iranians have achieved what they said, they clearly would eventually be able to expand the process on an industrial scale and, if they were determined to do so, enrich the uranium to levels that could produce an atomic weapon.
But so far the quanitities that the country has produced appear to be miniscule, and the enrichment level they announced today — 3.5 percent — is far short of what would be required for a weapon.
Mr. Ahmadinejad also said that Iran was treading a path for the production of industrial fuel and that the country’s nuclear activities have been “under complete, unprecedented” supervision by the I.A.E.A.
“Today we are interested to operate under I.A.E.A. supervision what has been achieved. And what is going to be achieved in the future is within the framework of the rights of the nation,”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech yielded more political overtones than it did technical surprises.
Songs and demonstrations on stage reflected nationalistic pride, including one with a line-up of brightly costumed men. A small box was carried on the stage which was said to contain the first enriched uranium. The announcer said that the sample would be saved at a museum.
“The day our people voted for you, they knew that this moment will arrive,” said the announcer, referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad as he repeatedly thanked him for what he called a victory and great happiness.
Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke at a podium before a mural of white doves in flight during the speech.
In what could be intended to reiterate Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is being developed for industrial and power purposes alone, Mr. Ahmadinejad said his country “does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals” and reiterated that other countries must respect Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.
The chief of Iran’s Atomic Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said before the president spoke that Iran had achieved a 3.5 percent level of uranium enrichment, a low level appropriate for use in Iran’s power plant.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private research group in Washington, said that the announcement that Iran was able to produce that level enrichment of enrichment had been expected, but that the quantities were probably very small.
“They need to learn a lot more to produce it in significant quantities and they need to build a lot more centrifuges,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who is the head of an important national security council, told the Kuwait News Agency that Iran’s nuclear scientists had enriched uranium using a cascade of 164 centrifuges.
An official at the I.A.E.A., who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the announcements appeared to refer to an older cascade at the nuclear center at Natanz. That cascade would be able to enrich uranium by the small amount needed for use as fuel in a nuclear reactor, but producing weapons-grade uranium would require a far larger installation, he said.
“This 164 machines is more industrial,” said a European diplomat who monitors the Iranian nuclear program and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But still, it’s not like they haven’t come close to achieving this in the past.” Centrifuges are tall, thin devices whose rotors spin very fast to enrich a toxic gas in uranium’s rare component, uranium 235, which can then be used to fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs.
Despite claims on Tuesday of an enrichment breakthrough, Iran in the past seven years has repeatedly used centrifuges and lasers to enrich uranium, according to reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the amounts have apparently been small and the setups experimental.
In the United States, concerns that the country’s nuclear program could lead to a confrontation that would disrupt Iran’s crude oil supplies have propelled crude oil prices.
Today, crude oil for May delivery rose 24 cents to settle at $68.98 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Crude touched $69.45 a barrel, the highest since Sept. 2.
President Bush on Monday repeated his determination to block Iran from gaining the kind of technical expertise from small-scale enrichment that could become the basis for a larger program capable of producing weapons. “We do not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Asked today about Iran’s statement on its nuclear program, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said it underscores why “the international community has serious concerns” about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“This is a regime that needs to be building confidence with the international community,” Mr. McClellan said. “Instead it’s moving in the wrong direction.”
He added: “Such steps only further isolate the regime from the rest of the world.” Mr. McClellan spoke before Mr. Ahmedinejad’s speech.
While the Iranian government has insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, the United Nations Security Council last month insisted that it halt all nuclear activities within 30 days to help build confidence that it is not secretly pursuing a weapons program.
The question of nuclear research has been at the heart of the conflict between Iran and the United States and its European allies this year. Iran, for instance, has rejected a Russian offer to enrich uranium in Russia for an Iranian nuclear plant because the deal would not allow for research using small-scale centrifuges.
During the same speech on Monday, Mr. Bush called news reports over the weekend about planning for possible military strikes to disable the Iranian nuclear program “wild speculation.”
Also on Monday, European foreign ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss steps short of sanctions that could be taken to pressure Iran if it does not comply with the Security Council request. Both Russia and China have indicated deep reluctance to impose sanctions, even while supporting calls for a freeze on Iranian research.