US blasts Iran nuke claims
Washington - The White House on Thursday blasted Iran's nuclear declarations as based on politics more than physics, casting doubt on Tehran's claims to have produced its first stocks of highly enriched uranium.
Washington ratcheted up a war of words with Iran's leaders, after Tehran declared itself a nuclear nation on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution and at a time of rising domestic political tumult.
A group of Republican senators meanwhile unveiled a bill aimed at upping overt US support for anti-government demonstrators in Tehran, saying Iranians were hungry for freedom and America had a duty to support them.
Two days after President Barack Obama said he was seeking a "significant" new array of international sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme, his spokesman Robert Gibbs hit out at Iran's claims of accelerating uranium enrichment.
"They're based on politics, not on physics," Gibbs said.
"The Iranian nuclear programme has undergone a series of problems throughout the year," he said, arguing that much of what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said turned out not to be true.
"We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching," Gibbs said.
Ahmadinejad announced earlier Iran had produced a "first stock" of 20% enriched uranium and was capable of enriching it to 80% but would not do so.
Gibbs sidestepped fresh questions about China's apparent opposition to tough new sanctions against Iran to punish its refusal to agree to an international deal to defuse the nuclear crisis.
"The Chinese have and will continue to play a constructive role... we believe, and I think they believe, it's not in their interest to have a worldwide arms race," Gibbs said.
"It's certainly not in their interest economically to have an arms race in the Middle East."
Veto-wielding China is a member of the crucial six-nation group mulling tougher sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Washington has already praised Russia for its new apparent openness to sanctions.
Washington on Wednesday unveiled a unilateral set of tougher sanctions targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The Iranian government meanwhile confronted fresh protests in the streets of Tehran, and Washington made a fresh plea for violence to be avoided.
Gibbs recalled comments by Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize address in 2009, saying the White House stood "by the universal rights of Iranians to express themselves freely and to do so without intimidation or violence".
The State Department said Tehran had attempted an unprecedented "near total information blockade" in a bid to quash the demonstrations.
Spokesperson Philip Crowley said US monitoring revealed the telephone network had been taken down, text messages blocked and the internet throttled.
"It's a remarkable statement... of how significantly the Iranian government fears its own people," Crowley said.
Republican Senators John Cornyn and Sam Brownback unveiled legislation that would green-light non-military aid to Iranian democratic opposition groups and humanitarian aid to "victims of the current regime", their offices said.
The bill includes a non-binding statement that Washington fully backs "efforts of the Iranian people to oppose and remove the current regime and transition to a freely elected, open, and democratic government in Iran".
Obama has been careful to avoid injecting the US into the domestic Iranian political crisis, reasoning so doing would give the government an excuse for a crackdown.
But Gibbs noted on Thursday that the Tehran government's hold over people in the streets "over the past many months is in many ways called into question".
As vast crowds massed in Tehran to mark the 1979 revolution, security forces attacked opposition leaders Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi while clashing with their supporters, an opposition website said.
Iran had previously enriched uranium to just 3.5% but has started enriching it to the higher level required for a Tehran medical research reactor, after snubbing a UN-drafted plan for fuel to be supplied by France and Russia.
Experts say that once Iran has enriched uranium to 20%, there is nothing to stop it carrying on to the 93% level needed to produce nuclear weapons as the technology is the same.
The West suspects Iran of using its nuclear programme as a cover for efforts to build an atomic bomb, a charge Iran strongly denies.