TEHRAN, Iran -- More than a third of Iran's lawmakers have signed on to a bill ordering an acceleration of the country's nuclear program if the U.S. Congress follows through with new sanctions, lawmakers said Wednesday.
In a gesture apparently intended as retaliation for congressional sanctions legislation, 100 members of Iran's parliament have signed on to a resolution calling for an increase in uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity from a current 20 percent. The bill also would order activation of the partially built Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, which could generate plutonium that could be used as bomb fuel.
The lawmakers signed the bill and presented it to the parliament's governing body, which could still block the bill.
Some U.S. advocates of sanctions maintain the Iranian threats are hollow. They say that because of the economic pressure created by past Western sanctions, Tehran can't afford to walk away from the upcoming negotiations to restrain its nuclear program.
But the legislation was another sign of the continuing tensions between the two sides one month after Iran and six world powers, including the United States, signed a preliminary agreement to freeze some aspects of its nuclear program.
Iranian lawmakers first described the legislation, unveiled Dec. 14, as a response to the U.S. Treasury Department's blacklisting of 19 individuals and groups in enforcement of past sanctions, a senior U.S. Senate aide said. But last week the lawmakers began describing their bill as retaliation for the new U.S. sanctions bill, according to the aide, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The six world powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- have been negotiating with Iran for a decade to try to impose limits on its nuclear program. Many countries fear, despite Iran's denials, that it seeks to obtain nuclear weapons capability.
Mehdi Moussavinejad, a member of the parliament's energy committee, told the official Fars news agency that the bill would require acceleration of the program if new sanctions are imposed or existing sanctions "intensified."
Iranian officials said the higher-grade uranium would be used to power nuclear-fueled ships and submarines.
In a television interview, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's atomic energy agency, acknowledged that if the negotiations fail, Iran will resume the pace of the nuclear program. He said that construction of the Arak reactor, which is a special worry for the West, is up to 80 percent complete.
Despite heavy White House lobbying, 26 senators this month signed on to new sanctions legislation that would be activated if the negotiations break down. Supporters are seeking enactment when Congress reconvenes in January. Sanctions bills have been almost unstoppable in Congress, and the new legislation has the backing of top Democrats, including New York's Sen. Charles Schumer, the No. 3 official in the Senate Democratic leadership.
Also Wednesday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi warned that disagreement between Iran and the six world powers on key points could prolong negotiations over a final deal.
Mr. Araqchi also warned again that "no new sanctions will be accepted and any new sanctions will kill negotiations."
"Since we have witnessed the lack of trust on the part of the other side in the past, we cannot be quite sure about their commitment," Mr. Araqchi said, according to Fars.