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U.S., Allies Less Than Knocked Out by Iran's 'Punch'

Officials of the Obama administration and key European allies say that, so far, they have been underwhelmed by the latest round of rhetoric and threats from Iranian leaders, who rallied a large crowd in Tehran on Thursday to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

In the days before Thursday's celebration, prominent figures in the Islamic government had escalated rhetoric denouncing their enemies and touting Iran's controversial military and nuclear ambitions. As we reported here on Monday, Iran's defense minister announced that military forces had successfully tested new drones and air defenses. Later the same day, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised a group of Iranian Air Force personnel that the Iranian nation will "punch the arrogance" of Western powers on Thursday "in a way that will leave them stunned."

Based on initial reports from the celebration, Western governments are hardly reeling from any rhetorical salvos. According to a BBC account, in a speech at the rally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed the crowd that Iran had become a "nuclear state" and was in the process of increasing its nuclear capability so that it could soon triple its production of 20 percent enriched uranium. He also warned the U.S. and its allies to stop threatening Iran: "We oppose your bullying policies that are filled with discrimination...You want to dominate the region, and the Iranian nation will not allow you to do so."

But for the last several days, Iranian officials have been talking about their intent to begin producing 20 percent enriched uranium, and initial reaction from Western officials was that Ahmadinejad's latest rhetoric was less than earth-shaking. "No punch indeed," said one Obama administration foreign-policy official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive foreign-policy issue.

A European official with knowledge of Iran, who also asked for anonymity, said that despite the latest nuclear pronouncements of Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials, many Western governments remain skeptical of Iran's ability to produce uranium enriched to the 20 percent level—nevermind enriching it to a higher, bomb-grade purity of up to 97 percent. "Nobody even knows if they can do 20 percent," the European official told Declassified. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Iranians were experiencing "surprising setbacks" in their enrichment efforts, failures the paper said "could undermine" Iran's ambitions to dramatically expand its nuclear program.

The European official added that Iran's erratic behavior, including its on-again-off-again response to a deal brokered by international negotiators to send its nuclear-power fuel rods abroad for processing, has alienated some important powers, like Russia, that in the past might have blocked efforts by the U.S. and Europe to tighten sanctions on Iran. Russian authorities may be particularly concerned, the official suggested, because there are indications that the post-Soviet intelligence services were blindsided by key Iranian nuclear developments, such as the revelation last year that Iran had been building a secret underground nuclear-enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom.

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