To tap the “major reserves” of uranium ore, Iran plans to develop a range of facilities, Khatami said. A uranium oxide processing plant has already been completed in the central city of Isfahan, which will be complemented by a gas centrifuge enrichment plant under construction at Natanz. Work has also begun in Yazd province on a plant to produce yellow cake, while another facility at an undisclosed location will complete the cycle, turning out finished fuel entirely made in Iran. Other mines near Ardakan have also begun extracting uranium from underground reserves, according to Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.

Recent Iranian newspaper reports quote Hassan Rohani, secretary general of the National Supreme Security Council, saying: “Iran will start operating its nuclear facility in Isfahan early next [Iranian] year.” The Iranian calendar year begins on 21 March.

Currently Iran is dependent on Russia to supply fuel for Bushehr, but exploitation of its own uranium supplies could eventually make Iran independent of Russia for its nuclear fuel needs. The head of the Iranian parliament’s Energy Commission, Hossein Afarideh, said the uranium that has been extracted near Yazd will be processed in the Isfahan and Natanz facilities and eventually could become fuel needed for Bushehr. Iran had been searching for uranium for years and “it is the first time that extraction operations have taken place,” he said.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), noted that the IAEA was informed of Iran’s activities in Isfahan with respect to uranium conversion during a visit from its officials three years ago. A spokeswoman for the IAEA confirmed that Iran’s uranium project has been known for some time. A senior IAEA official had visited the mine in 1992, she said, “and the Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear-power programme that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle.” Last month IAEA director general Mohammed ElBaradei visited the Natanz facility, and reported seeing a sophisticated facility with a pilot project and a larger unit still under construction. Part of the facility was being built underground.

A spokesman for the US State Department said: “Iran’s ambitious and costly pursuit of a complete [closed] nuclear fuel cycle only makes sense if it’s in support of a nuclear weapons programme. We continue to have very grave concerns that Iran is using its supposedly peaceful nuclear programme as a pretext for advancing a nuclear weapons programme.”