|Western powers fear that Iran will use its nuclear capacity to develop nuclear weapons [AFP]
Iran has produced its first batch of uranium concentrates to be used at a nuclear plant, a major step in cutting its reliance on imports of the key ingredient for nuclear fuel, state media has reported.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the country's atomic chief, said on Sunday that Iranian experts would begin using domestically produced yellowcake, the raw material for enrichment, at the Isfahan conversion plant.
"The West had counted on the possibility of us being in trouble over raw material but today we had the first batch of yellowcake from Gachin mine sent to Isfahan [conversion] facility," Salehi said on state television on Sunday.
The announcement came just a day before world powers meet with Iranian officials in another attempt to persuade them to halt uranium enrichment.
Salehi said Iran still cannot meet "the overall need of the Isfahan facility but... will produce a significant part of it" from the Gachin mine near the Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas.
"Iran has become self-sufficient in the entire fuel cycle, starting from [uranium] exploration, mining and then turning it into yellowcake and converting it to UF6 and then turning it into fuel plates or pellets," he said.
He said that Iran would formally notify the International Atomic Energy Agency of its yellowcake production.
Analysts believe that Iran has nearly exhausted 600 tonnes of yellowcake it acquired from South Africa in the 1970s before the Islamic revolution.
John Large, a London-based independent nuclear consultant, told Al Jazeera that the announcement was aimed at proving its nuclear programme was now self-sufficient.
"The international community, the International Atomic Energy Agency in particular, has been very aware of these processes being developed,' he said.
"But taken in the context of the P5+1 ... it says Iran is making a signal here that it has the capacity to run the entire uranium enrichment cycle from our own domestic supplies."
The enriched uranium required for use in nuclear reactors or weapons is produced in centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) at high speeds. The UF6 is derived in a reaction from yellowcake, a concentrate processed from mined uranium ore.
"Iran has had this capability to produce yellowcake for a very long time, but the important thing is the timing of the announcement," Al Jazeera's Alireza Ronaghi, reporting from Tehran, said.
"Iran is trying to send a message ahead of talks that even if you build a wall around Iran, its nuclear programme will go ahead.
"Iran has been trying to say that its only a matter of time to become totally self-sufficient in its nuclear programme, even with the sanctions."
The US and some of its allies want Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme because the process can also be used for weapons production. Iran insists its nuclear aims are solely peaceful.
Al Jazeera's Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Washington, said that announcement would do little to reassure the US government.
"Just on Friday in Bahrain, secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged Iran to go to this meeting in Geneva in good faith," she said.
"Even though Tehran says it is going to be dealing with the yellowcake processing under the auspices of the IAEA, really from Washington's standpoint that isn't going to be enough."
Iranian nuclear chief Salehi told Sunday's televised news conference that the announcement meant "we will be taking part in the negotiations with strength and power".
He insisted the Geneva talks were for the benefit of the other countries, not Iran.
"We want to create a graceful solution out of the political deadlock for those who have pressurised us," he said.
Iran has repeatedly rejected calls for it to give up its urnaium enrichment programme, insisting it has the right to make nuclear fuel as a signatory of the Non-proliferation Treaty.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies