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Iran loads own fuel rods into research reactor

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran began loading domestically made nuclear fuel rods into its Tehran research reactor on Wednesday, a defiant move in response to toughening Western sanctions over its controversial nuclear program.

The official IRNA news agency said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inserted the first Iranian-made rod into the reactor in northern Tehran, and state TV broadcast live images from the ceremony with Iranian nuclear experts briefing Ahmadinejad on the process.

Iran touted the development as an incremental step in the country's efforts to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, despite Western penalties and U.N. sanctions.

The West suspects Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's geared for peaceful purposes only, such as energy production. The Tehran reactor, for example, produces nuclear isotopes for treating cancer patients.

The development came as Iran said Wednesday it cut oil exports to six European countries — the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Portugal — in response to recent new European Union sanctions.

The move comes days after Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Qassemi said Tehran could cut off oil exports to "hostile" European nations as tensions rose over suggestions that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

Israel is worried Iran could be on the brink of an atomic bomb and many Israeli officials believe sanctions only give Tehran time to move its nuclear program underground, out of reach of Israeli military strikes. The U.S. and its allies argue that Israel should hold off on any military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to allow more time for sanctions to work.