The Associated Press . Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wears eye protection as he visits an exhibition of Iran's laser science, in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday. Ahmadinejad ordered his country's atomic agency on Sunday to begin the production of higher enriched uranium, a move that's likely to deepen international skepticism about the country's real intentions on the crucial issue of enriched uranium.
VIENNA -- Iran pressed ahead Monday with plans that will increase its ability to make nuclear weapons as it formally informed the U.N. nuclear agency of its intention to enrich uranium to higher levels.
Alarmed world powers questioned the rationale behind the move and warned the country it could face more U.N. sanctions if it made good on its intentions.
Iran maintains its nuclear activities are peaceful, and an envoy insisted the move was meant only to provide fuel for Tehran's research reactor. But world powers fearing that Iran's enrichment program might be a cover for a weapons program were critical.
Britain said the Islamic Republic's reason for further enrichment made no sense because it is not technically advanced enough to turn the resulting material into the fuel rods needed for the reactor.
France and the U.S. said the latest Iranian move left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions to punish Iran's nuclear defiance.
Even a senior parliamentarian from Russia, which traditionally opposes Western ambitions for new U.N. sanctions, suggested the time had now come for such additional punishment
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the State Duma -- the lower house of parliament -- told the Interfax news agency that the international community should ''react to this step with serious measures, including making the regime of economic sanctions more severe.''
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already announced Sunday that his country would significantly enrich at least some of the country's stockpile of uranium to 20 percent. Still, Monday's formal notification was significant, particularly because of Iran's waffling in recent months on the issue.
Western powers blame Iran for rejecting an internationally endorsed plan to take Iranian low enriched uranium, further enriching it and return it in the form of fuel rods for the reactor -- and in broader terms for turning down other overtures meant to diminish concerns about its nuclear agenda.
Telling The Associated Press that his country now had formally told the International Atomic Energy Agency of its intentions, Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said that IAEA inspectors now overseeing enrichment to low levels would be able to stay on site to monitor the process.
He suggested world powers had pushed Iran into the decision, asserting that it was their fault that the plan that foresaw Russian and French involvement in supplying fuel from enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor had failed.
''Until now, we have not received any response to our positive logical and technical proposal,'' he said. ''We cannot leave hospitals and patients desperately waiting for radio isotopes'' being produced at the Tehran reactor and used in cancer treatment, he added.