TEHRAN - International pressure for new sanctions against Iran grew on Monday after Tehran announced more moves to expand nuclear fuel production and enrichment plants, heightening Western fears it wants to make atom bombs.
The United States and France led calls for what would be a fourth set of sanctions against Iran, while a senior lawmaker in Russia, which in the past has urged talks rather than punishment, said economic sanctions should be considered.
Among the big powers only China, which can block any U.N. sanctions with its veto on the Security Council, has so far remained opposed to punishing the major oil exporter.
The calls for sanctions came after Iran, which says its nuclear program is to make electricity rather than bombs, said it would start making higher-grade reactor fuel on Tuesday and add 10 uranium enrichment plants over the next year.
Possible sanctions targets include Iran's central bank, the Revolutionary Guards who Western powers say are key to Iran's nuclear program, shipping firms and its energy sector, Western diplomats say.
Conditions set by Iran regarding a big powers plan for it to swap low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel for a medical reactor, together with its latest defiant moves, appear to have hardened Western attitudes.
The five veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members -- United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- plus Germany proposed the fuel swap plan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called on Sunday for targeted measures aimed at the government of Iran rather than its people, appealed again for sanctions on Monday.
We must still try and find a peaceful way to resolve this issue. The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track but it will require all of the international community to work together, Gates said in Paris.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner agreed.
The only thing that we can do, alas, is apply sanctions given that negotiations are not possible, he said.
In Russia, a member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party whose statements generally reflect Kremlin policy, also spoke of sanctions.
The international community should swiftly react ... in order to send Tehran a new signal of its intent to react with serious measures, right up to a strengthening of economic sanctions, said a spokeswoman for Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house.
SANCTIONS WITHOUT U.N. RESOLUTION?
Although China remains opposed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month that if Iran remained intransigent it faced further sanctions even if there is no United Nations agreement to act against Tehran.
Faced by the sanctions threat, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given contradictory signals, first expressing readiness to send low-enriched uranium abroad and then saying Iran would produce 20 percent-enriched nuclear fuel itself.
Such policy swerves in Iran on the nuclear issue could also be a sign of the country's internal turmoil after a disputed election last June, which could flare again on Thursday when Iran marks the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Opposition supporters are expected to try to revive their protests over a presidential election they say was rigged, and Tehran had issued strong warnings to the opposition.
The Iranian nation will show on (February 11) how it will punch the faces of all the world's arrogants -- America, Britain and Zionists -- with its unity, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday, state television reported.
The United States and the European Union expressed concern about the potential for a renewed government crackdown.
The large-scale detentions and mass trials, the threatened execution of protesters, the intimidation of family members of those detained and the continuing denial to its citizens of the right to peaceful expression are contrary to human rights norms, they said in a statement on Monday.
The Iranian statement on higher-grade nuclear fuel and more enrichment plants was issued by Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation head Ali Akbar Salehi. It followed orders on Sunday from Ahmadinejad for work to begin on producing atomic fuel.
Iran informed the U.N. nuclear agency in a letter on Monday about its decision to enrich uranium at its Natanz plant to a level of 20 percent for use in a reactor producing medical isotopes, compared with the 3.5 percent it now makes.
Today we handed over the letter, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iran's Arabic-language al Alam state television.
The letter said 20 percent enrichment would start on Tuesday with the aim of later converting it into fuel and it invited U.N. inspectors to monitor the process, Soltanieh told Reuters.
Salehi earlier told al Alam: Iran will set up 10 uranium enrichment centres next year. The Iranian year starts in March. Iran mooted such a plan last year but gave no time frame.
Experts doubt Tehran has the technical ability to launch 10 new plants so soon and believe it is finding it harder to obtain crucial components due to U.N. sanctions. Analysts say it may be a negotiating tactic.
Ahmadinejad said Iran remained open to the proposed nuclear world powers' fuel exchange plan, which would remove the bulk of potential nuclear bomb material Iran has stockpiled.
Germany said on Monday Iran's announced intention to crank up nuclear work showed it was not cooperating with the IAEA, which has called for a nuclear suspension and more inspections.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Reza Derakhshi and Hashem Kalantari in Tehran and Madeline Chambers and Paul Carrel in Berlin; Conor Humphries in Moscow; Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Writing by Charles Dick)