European Union

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Is it just me, or has our world taken a turn to greater incivility in the last few years? The evidence seems overwhelming. Our politicians attack one another and show no inclination to listen to anything but what they already believe. Politics has always involved aggression, but we have crossed a line when national figures compare peaceful protesters to international terrorists and prominent personalities accuse their adversaries of “not loving America.” Our public discourse leaves little space for legitimate and respected disagreement. You are loyal and upstanding or you are traitorous and debased, depending on who is listening.

This phenomenon is global. The dismissive renunciation of Greece’s calls for reform in European Union finances and its pleas for some alternative to economic policies crushing its population show how European politics are also plagued by callousness toward dissent. China and Russia have only increased their intimidation, torture and even murder of dissidents. The killing last week of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and leading liberal politician in Russia, was one more sign that rulers around the world are cracking down on public critics. Shot dead in sight of the Kremlin, Nemtsov’s murder is a deadly warning to all, in Russia and beyond, who challenge established authority.

Growing inequalities of power and wealth are a necessary part of this story. During the past half-century, millions of people around the world have gained access to education, high incomes and personal security. At the same time, many more millions have been left behind. By most measures, the gap between the lucky “haves” and the unlucky “have-nots” has grown across societies. This is perhaps true in the United States most of all, where a narrow sliver of the population has seen unprecedented income growth, while the vast majority of citizens face real declining wages. The children of the wealthy and the educated in our society can expect lives of great abundance and opportunity; the children of the poor have much narrower prospects, with less hope than during prior decades.

In a growing but deeply unequal world, the stakes in political debate are often violent. Those who have acquired much in recent years fear, legitimately, that those left behind want to take what they have. Since the poor have “proven” they cannot help themselves, the argument goes, they must want to steal someone else’s earnings. Taxes, health care and even aid for education get coded as thievery by the lazy and unqualified, or those who are doing their bidding.

On the other end of our polarized debates, those who speak, legitimately, for citizens left behind claim that privileged citizens in our society have somehow cheated and stolen from others. There is a populist hatred of well-educated hard working professionals that seeps through the nasty condemnations voiced by the Tea Party’s supporters and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Both blame elites for their personal frustrations when, in fact, most of the highly educated and high earning members of our society are also hard-working and simply playing by the rules. Successful professionals in our knowledge industries do not work with their hands, but they are the sources of innovation and productivity that allow even our poorest citizens to live better material lives than their predecessors. Although elites (like most of us reading this column) are beneficiaries of current inequalities, we did not make them, and we often do what we can to help broader parts of our social community. Self-interest and concern for the public good are not necessarily contradictions, and they do not correlate with one’s income-level.

Inequality is encouraging incivility today because of the fear I mentioned earlier. Those at the top fear that their position is not secure, especially as they see how far they can fall. Those near the bottom fear that they do not have an opportunity to climb even part of the way to the top. That is the story of our vituperative politics around health care. It is also the story surrounding European Union finances and political authority in China and Russia. When the world is increasingly divided between “haves” and “have-nots,” each side has more to fight for, at almost all costs.  In these polarized circumstances, democracy becomes a secondary concern, even in the United States – witness the cynical efforts by certain politicians today to discourage poor, young and minority voters from casting their ballots.  

The solution to our current global inequality and incivility is not clear. I do not have a simple roadmap to offer. We must, however, begin by diagnosing and discussing the problem. We must study the numerous causes and their many consequences as social scientists, humanists and cosmopolitan citizens. We must push ourselves to contemplate creative policies – in our universities, in our home communities, in our nation and our world – that push against these problems. This should be a calling for our best universities and our best young thinkers.

If we are not studying these issues, we can expect more violence and democratic decline in coming years. Money and moral self-righteousness will mean little if our society does not find the resolve to encourage more civility and more equality. You can visit Boris Nemtsov’s grave in Russia to see the alternative.

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He writes about foreign policy. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

BRUSSELS — EU finance ministers, condemning the Feb. 12 nuclear test by North Korea, have imposed trade and economic sanctions on the Asian nation.

A statement by the 27 European Union finance ministers, who met Monday in Brussels, said they condemn the test “in the strongest terms” and demand that North Korea abstain from further tests. The statement also urged North Korea to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty without delay.

Monday’s action brings the number of North Koreans subject to a travel ban and an asset freeze to 26, and the number of sanctioned companies to 33. The ministers also banned the export of components for ballistic missiles, such as certain types of aluminum, and prohibited trade in new public bonds from North Korea.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Less than a year after Mali’s military was heavily criticized for seizing power in a coup, it will now start receiving advice from European experts on how to maintain control of its vast territory.

On Monday, the European Union officially launched a training mission to the African nation. Its goal is to make the disparaged Malian army good enough to patrol the whole country, including its huge northern region, where French and African troops are fighting to unseat Islamist rebels who used the coup’s chaos to grab control there.

The mission will “support stability in Mali and the Sahel, both now and in the future. Respect for human rights and the protection of civilians will be an important part of the training program,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Critics have accused the new Malian military government of being undemocratic and abusive. Still, the European Union ministers felt they had no choice but to offer support and oversight because of fears that — if left alone — northern Mali could turn into a new Afghanistan, with Islamist groups given free rein to hatch deadly plots carried out around the world.

The 27-nation bloc was so eager to help that it sent the first 70 advisers to Mali 10 days ago so they could hit the ground running when the decision was made. More EU military experts will begin arriving in Bamako next month and the training will begin in April.

The decision by the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers who were meeting in Brussels authorizes the deployment of about 500 people to Mali for 15 months at an estimated cost of $16.4 million.

About 20 EU countries will participate in the mission, which officials say will not be involved in any combat.

Some of those groups have imposed a harsh version of Islamic law, executing violators and performing punitive amputations on thieves.

International officials, including those in the EU, have turned to the enemy of those militants — Mali’s military government in Bamako, a former pariah.

That military’s record over the past year has drawn little praise. It ostensibly handed power back to civilians, but then in December it arrested the prime minister, who announced his resignation on state television at 4 a.m., hours after soldiers had stormed his house.

Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for West Africa, Corinne Dufka, said those events fit the pattern of abuse by Malian soldiers since the coup in March 2012.

The goal now, EU officials say, is create an army not only capable of holding the retaken territory but willing to respect international law and civilian control.

Europeans faced with a crushing economic crisis have gotten a lot of bad news in the past few years. Although I’m no economist, I am a German native studying in the States and I’ve recognized good news amid the bad. Last Friday, the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize. Few people have asked me about that so far, which is a shame, since I’ve written a little acceptance speech for this memorable event:

I’m proud to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. The EU has a lot of problems, and we Europeans tend to forget what this Union once was — and I believe still is — all about: The EU  is one of the largest peace projects in history. I hope that today, all people who are part of this Union feel not only German or French or Spanish or Polish — but also European.

The following lines, spoken by Winston Churchill in 1946, have been quoted countless times as part of the foundation of Europe: “If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be this act of faith in the European family and this act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past ... The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important … Therefore I say to you: Let Europe arise!” In 1951, six countries, including the wartime enemies Germany and France, founded the European Coal and Steel Community, which expanded in 1957 to become the European Economic Community.

The history of the European Union is part of my own history as well. While officials were signing treaties about the future of France and Germany,  my grandfather opened his house for guests from France as part of an exchange between his village and a French village. Neither my grandfather nor my grandmother spoke French. The husband in the exchange couple spoke a little German, but his wife Armelle spoke none.  Somehow, they communicated with my grandparents. And somehow, they all became friends. When I went to France in the summers growing up, my family always visited them. For me, they are like a third set of grandparents. When my grandmother died this spring, the couple sent one of the most touching letters I’ve read in my life. In a Europe without the dream of a Union and a peaceful future, none of this could have happened.

The EU was not the sole savior of Europe. Without the American military presence in Europe and the financial assistance included in the Marshall Plan, things might have turned out quite differently. Without the EU, I am quite sure they would have, and I think it would have been for the worse.

I don’t think the EU is perfect — far from it. Politicians have used the EU to adopt laws that their own parliaments would not have agreed upon. Some countries have  welcomed the economic benefits of the EU without recognizing the responsibilities that come with them.  In spite of that, I hope that today, we all remember the ideals on which the Union was built. The current crises might even give us a chance to re-think Europe and eliminate some of the weaknesses of the EU: its distance from the population, over-complicated structure, inflated administration and a deficit of democracy.

The Nobel Peace Prize gives Europe the chance to look back on the enthusiasm that both politicians and ordinary people once felt toward the project. However, we should not consider the Prize reason to rest on these laurels. Europe is an unfinished project. 

Something I deeply admire about America is its undaunted belief in the American Dream, which glues the country together in spite of all its problems and differences. There is a European Dream, too. Both dreams might be myths. But that does not mean we can’t make them reality. If not now, then when can Europe start to believe in its dream again?

Hardt is an English major from Freiburg, Germany.

BRUSSELS — For more than a year, European Union officials have called for austerity, austerity and more austerity as a means to solve Europe’s debt crisis. Now people who don’t want to pay the price are taking their fight from the streets to the ballot box.

Governments have fallen, more are at risk and in some places, a stark streak of nationalism is on the rise that could swing Europe ever deeper into a fortress mentality.

At stake is the future of the continent, where countries rich and poor are struggling with mountains of debt and moribund economies — a toxic combination that often seems to require contradictory remedies of belt-tightening and economic stimulus.

Increasingly, the long focus on austerity is convincing Europeans that the German-led mantra of fiscal responsibility is creating a vicious circle of more misery leading to lower growth — leading to even greater debt distress.

“What is happening in Europe is the austerity drive is actually slowing down the necessary rebalancing of European economies,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform.

Austerity measures aimed at balancing national budgets have led to drastic spending cuts by governments across the continent, including layoffs and pay cuts for government workers, slashing of key services including welfare and development programs, as well as tax hikes to boost government revenues.

Many in Europe have had enough of this harsh medicine.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the architects of the EU’s response to the financial crisis, is in danger of being turned out of office in next month’s runoff with Francois Hollande — a Socialist who is promising not to cut, but to increase public spending by €20 billion by 2017.

Hollande is also promising to re-negotiate a much-vaunted budgetary pact among 25 EU countries meant to enforce national fiscal discipline.

Greece votes in elections next month in which fringe parties hostile to international bailouts requiring steep austerity are expected to make big gains — possibly endangering efforts by the current technocratic government to rein in the nation’s debt.

And the Netherlands’ 18-month-old conservative coalition resigned this week after it failed to agree on cutting its own budget deficit to meet the EU limits it had demanded so fiercely of other countries.

Beyond that, in the Czech Republic, almost 100,000 people rallied in Prague’s downtown Wenceslas Square last weekend to protest government reforms and cuts, calling on the government to resign in one of the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism. And earlier this year, tens of thousands of Romanians bitter about savage public-sector wage cuts took to the streets and the government collapsed.

Analysts say it’s no surprise that people are fed up.

“I don’t think there are any examples of countries accepting endless austerity and downward standards of living,” Tilford said. “There has to be light at the of the tunnel.”

Voters may have good reasons to reject unrelenting cuts. But in their desire to avoid pain, they may also be prompting politicians to put off decisions that Europe must take to remain competitive globally.

Many experts say government protections for workers need to be loosened — for example, by making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers — in order to halt the flight of jobs from Europe to regions deemed more business-friendly.

And the anger appears to be driving voters to the extremes. In the first round of the French presidential election last weekend, nearly one voter in five cast their ballot for the National Front, a hard-right party previously known primarily for its anti-immigraton platform.

That, along with the 11 percent showing by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, shows a high level of anger, said Piotr Kaczynski, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Studies.

“The big winners of the French elections are the extreme parties — extreme right and extreme left,” which together won more than 30 percent of the vote, Kaczynski said.

The rise of the fringes is not limited to France. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is marching ahead in the polls — and may win a dozen or so seats in parliament. And it was a right-wing politician stridently critical of Islam who brought down the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week. Geert Wilders, whose support was critical to Rutte’s minority government, decided to withdraw his support over the government’s budget-cutting plans.

“With the Rutte government’s resignation, the pro-cyclical austerity course in Europe has once again proven to be the biggest disposal program for governments in recent history,” Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland commented in an editorial Tuesday.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble criticized Wilders’ actions in acid tones.

“We have always known that, if one votes for radical right-wing euro-skeptic parties and xenophobes, one makes democracy not more stable but more unstable,” Schaeuble said. “That can be seen now in Holland. So my advice is, don’t vote that way.”

But as Europe evolves, the Germans may wind up the big losers. They have been the most insistent on enforcing austerity, warning of the “moral hazard” of helping out countries that have not endured sufficient pain as a result of past lapses in discipline.

Now, it is possible that the future of Europe may lie with politicians like Hollande, who is favored to defeat Sarkozy in the presidential runoff. Hollande has promised to increase taxes on the rich, create 60,000 new teaching jobs and subsidize 150,000 jobs for young people.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was still staunchly defending her insistence on austerity.

“I want to say clearly, it is not the case that we say saving solves every problem but, if you at home talk about how you want to shape your life tolerably, then one of the first conditions is that you somehow get by with what you earn,” she said.

Still, at least some economists are now calling for a return to priming the pump — even at the cost of higher deficits.

“There can be no fiscal sustainability across Europe as a whole without a return to economic growth,” Tilford said.

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Europeans tired of austerity are voting for extremists

TALLINN, Estonia — Estonia’s Parliament passed legislation on Wednesday banning human trafficking and making the Baltic nation the last EU country to enact such laws.

The lawmakers voted 91-0 in favor, with 10 members absent. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is expected to make the bill law by approving it in the coming weeks.

Estonia had been under pressure from the United States to adopt such legislation and thereby avoid being kept on a watchlist the U.S. State Department keeps of countries it regards as lax in fighting human trafficking. The list has included Belarus and Russia and EU members Cyprus and Malta.

Such criticism embarrassed Estonia, a small country that considers the U.S. a key ally and has long been sensitive to its image overseas.

Andres Anvelt, of Estonia’s opposition Social Democratic Party, called the bill passed Wednesday “a breakthrough” for the nation of 1.3 million people. “This is the first step forward in fighting human trafficking,” Anvelt said in Parliament as lawmakers prepared to vote.

The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn also praised Estonia’s government.

The new law “is a testament to the commitment both of Estonian lawmakers and of the NGOs who have worked tirelessly to secure justice for the victims of human trafficking and ensure substantial punishment” for perpetrators of the crime, embassy spokeswoman Michelle Schohn said in an email to The Associated Press.

The measure, fast-tracked by Estonia’s Justice Ministry, makes human trafficking punishable by a maximum 15-year prison sentence. It also criminalizes sexual exploitation, including forcing minors to work as prostitutes or to appear in pornographic films and erotic performances.

Existing laws had ignored human trafficking issues such as the recruiting, transporting and exploiting victims, and allowed perpetrators to get away with short jail sentences or fines.

The last U.S. watchlist report said Estonia was not sufficiently fighting forced labor and forced prostitution.

“Estonia is a source, transit, and destination country for women subjected to forced prostitution” that report had said, noting that women, particularly from rural areas, were at risk of being forced into prostitution in the capital, Tallinn. They also risked being taken abroad to work as prostitutes in countries such as Finland, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, the report said.

Estonian support groups for victims say typical cases involved women who were lured to work in striptease clubs as dancers but ended up being forced to offer sexual services to club clients.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: Estonio passes law to make human trafficking illegal

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders formally made Serbia a candidate for membership in the bloc, in a remarkable turnaround for a country considered a pariah just over a decade ago.

Serbia had been widely expected to get EU candidacy in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany delayed the move, saying it wanted to see more progress in talks with Kosovo.

“We agreed tonight to grant Serbia the status of candidate country,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said after a meeting of the bloc’s heads of state and government.

“This is a remarkable result,” he said. “I hope Belgrade will continue to encourage good neighborly relations in the Western Balkans.”

Serbia spent much of the 1990s ostracized and isolated from the EU after its then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic started the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia to prevent a crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

Candidate status is an initial step on the road to EU membership. Belgrade will still probably have to wait for about a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then drag on for several years.

Still, the EU move is politically important for Serbia’s pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, whose party faces elections soon.

The European Parliament urged the bloc’s executive body on Thursday to open accession negotiations with Serbia as soon as possible.

Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood and religion, came under international control after the 1999 war during which NATO forces ejected Milosevic’s troops. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia refuses to recognize it.

The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia’s candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish “good-neighborly relations” with its former province.

Over the past year, the two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated talks dealing mostly with practical matters such as recognizing each other’s official documents. A key agreement reached last month allows Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences and spell out the technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.

Kosovo has been recognized by nearly 90 nations, including 22 of the EU’s 27 member states. But Serbia has blocked its membership in the U.N., where many countries also reject unilateral declarations of independence.

Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, said the EU decision was good for Serbia “because it means that minds can concentrate on the building a better Serbia for the future, and not resort to looking back to the past.”

“What is good for Serbia is also good for the region,” Judah said. “A sign of confidence in the biggest state of the western Balkans will always have at least some effect with the neighbors.” 


Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at

CEO of BBVA Compass Bank Manolo Sanchez, right, discusses issues of ethics and public image with business school dean Thomas Gilligan, left, Wednesday evening in the UTC. Sanchez hopes to improve society’s negative view and mistrust of banks.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

The McCombs School of Business brought a major figure in global banking to campus Wednesday to address recent financial crises and their affects on his bank.

BBVA Compass CEO Manuel Sanchez spoke to students of all majors as part of the business school’s VIP Speakers Series. Business school dean Thomas Gilligan said BBVA Compass is a strong partner with UT and that the bank has made over half a million dollars in gifts to the University. The company also hires many UT alumni, he said.

The purpose of the series is to allow students to learn from role models of business success, said Olivia Luko, a management information systems senior who helped organize the event.

“This is a really crucial event because all UT students can see an image of what they have the potential to become,” Luko said. “Mr. Sanchez is a role model for any student that’s hoping to achieve success in the corporate world.”

Sanchez spent the first half of the hour-long event answering questions asked by Gilligan. Sanchez spent the remaining time responding to students’ questions.

Sanchez spoke about the effects of the financial crisis that gripped the United States in 2008 and 2009. He said the crisis damaged the reputation of all banks, even if they were not involved.

“Society lost its faith in the banking industry, and all banks have been thrown in the same bag,” he said. “People can’t tell which banks are good banks or bad banks.”

Sanchez said banks are a force for good in the economy, providing liquidity and funneling financial capital to great ideas.

“The question is how did we get to this, the pits we are at now,” he said. “There were some banks that were not straight, not following principles that they should have been following. What they did was legal, but it was not moral.”

Though BBVA Compass did not receive a bailout from the American taxpayer, it is currently working to improve its public image and demonstrate its social value, Sanchez said.

“It’s the theme of the century — people want to know that an organization has a soul,” he said.

When a student asked Sanchez about how the unfolding financial crisis in Europe effects his bank, Sanchez said his bank is somewhat immune from the turmoil.

“BBVA Compass is a very strong institution,” he said. “What happens in Spain effects our profitability there. But we’re making up the difference elsewhere in the world. Those are the benefits of diversification.”

Sanchez said the European crisis would be resolved, but only at a very slow speed.

“This crisis will be resolved at a European speed,” he said. “The European Union started with the Treaty of Rome, and we’re here 50 years later. Some countries are entering into a fiscal union, and that’s the next step. But that treaty will have to be approved at European speed, and when you think about it, that will take a long time.”

BRUSSELS — Cisco says it is challenging Microsoft’s $8.5 billion takeover of Skype at the EU’s top court to ensure Microsoft won’t block other video conferencing services.

In a blog post Wednesday, Marthin De Beer, the head of Cisco’s video conferencing division, said “Cisco does not oppose the merger, but believes the European Commission should have placed conditions that would ensure greater standards-based interoperability.”

He said Cisco, which offers the WebEx teleconferencing service, wants the European Court of Justice to get the Commission to create open standards for video conferencing, similar to what exists for mobile phone calls.

Such standards would eventually allow WebEx users to make calls to users of Skype and other services like Google Voice.

De Beer said that without these standards, Microsoft could end up with sole “control (of) the future of video communications.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in Natanz, Iran. Major Asian importers of Iranian oil are thumbing their noses at attempts to get them to rein in their purchases, dealing a blow to sanctions.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — In defiant swipes at its foes, Iran said Wednesday it is dramatically closer to mastering the production of nuclear fuel even as the U.S. weighs tougher pressures and Tehran’s suspected shadow war with Israel brings probes far beyond the Middle East.

Iran further struck back at the West by indicating it was on the verge of imposing a midwinter fuel squeeze to Europe in retaliation for a looming boycott of Iranian oil, but denied reports earlier in the day that six nations had already been cut off.

The uncompromising messages from Iran, however, came with a counterpoint. The official IRNA news agency said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that Iran is ready to return to talks with the U.S. and other world powers.

The dual strategy — taking nuclear steps while proposing more talks — has become a hallmark of Iran’s dealings for years and some critics have dismissed it as a time-buying tactic. The advances claimed Wednesday could likely feed these views.

In a live TV broadcast, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was shown overseeing what was described as the first Iranian-made fuel rod inserted into a research reactor in northern Tehran. Separately, the semiofficial Fars agency reported that a “new generation” of Iranian centrifuges — used to enrich uranium toward nuclear fuel — had gone into operation at the country’s main enrichment facility at Natanz in central Iran.

In Washington, the assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation, Tom Countryman, dismissed the Iranian claims of reaching a pivotal moment. “The announcement today by Iran has much more to do with political developments in Iran than it has to do with factual developments,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Iran’s “defiant acts” seek to “distract attention” from the damage brought by international sanctions.

Meanwhile, Iran is facing major new international complications: Accusations of bringing an apparent covert conflict with Israel to points stretching from Thailand and India to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Officials in Israel ramped up allegations that Iran was linked to international bomb plots, saying magnetic “sticky” bombs found in a Bangkok house rented by Iranians were similar to devices used against Israeli envoys in a foiled attack in Georgia on Monday and a blast in New Delhi that injured four people, including a diplomat’s wife.

“In recent days, Iran’s terror operations are being laid bare for all,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet. It included discussions about “preventive measures” against Iranian threats, said a statement from Netanyahu’s office that did not elaborate.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, called the allegations “baseless” and an attempt to push “conspiracy” theories to discredit Iran with its Asian partners, including major oil buyer India.

Iran, in turn, accused Israel of being behind clandestine attacks that have claimed the lives of at least five members of Iran’s scientific community in the past two years, including a “sticky” bomb blast that killed a director at the Natanz labs last month.

Framed photos of the five scientists were shown by Iranian TV before a speech by Ahmadinejad, who was flanked by the flags of Iran and the country’s nuclear agency.

He repeated Iran’s goal of becoming a technological beacon for the Islamic world and insisted that scientific progress is the right of all nations. Here rests one of the biggest dilemmas for the West. Iran has merged the nuclear program with its national identity and is unlikely to make any concessions without huge incentives.

“I hope we reach the point where we will be able to meet all our nuclear needs inside the country so we won’t need to extend our hand before others, specifically before the world’s dastardly people,” Ahmadinejad said. “For a gentleman, for a chivalrous nation, the most difficult moment is when he has a need to ask (for something) from a dastardly person.”

Iran also used the announcements as a carefully crafted show of unity.

The families of the slain scientists attended the ceremonies. State TV showed the father of the scientist killed last month, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, clicking on the computer to inaugurate the advanced centrifuges inside the Natanz facility. TV showed tears in the eyes of Roshan’s mother and wife when the father opened the project.

Ahmadinejad put the young daughter of slain electronics student Darioush Rezaeinejad on his knee and patted her long hair.

The purported new frontiers for Iran’s atomic program showcase what could be significant steps at becoming self-sufficient in creating nuclear fuel — the centerpiece of the dispute with the U.S. and its allies.

In the fuel cycle, mined uranium is processed into gas, then that gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it. Low-enriched uranium is used to produce fuel rods that power a reactor. But the same process can be used to produce highly enriched uranium that can be used to build a warhead.

Iran claims it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.

The Tehran facility where IRNA said the new fuel rods were installed is intended to produce isotopes for cancer treatments. It requires fuel enriched to around 20 percent, considered a threshold between low- and high-enriched uranium.Iran began enriching up to near 20 percent in February 2010 after attempts at a deal with the West to import the fuel rods broke down.

Iranian officials have long spoken of introducing faster, more efficient centrifuges at the Natanz facility. The Fars report did not give further details, but Iran also says it also has sophisticated centrifuges in a new site built into a mountainside south of Tehran and possibly impervious to airstrikes.

A diplomat accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s known nuclear programs said the “new generation” of centrifuges appeared to be referring to about 65 IR-4 machines that were recently set up at an experimental site at Natanz. The new model can churn out enriched material at a faster rate than the more rudimentary IR-1 centrifuges, thousands of which are at work in Natanz producing low-enriched uranium, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is privileged.

In still another development, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Abbasi, was quoted as saying Iran will open a new facility to produce “yellowcake,” which is concentrated natural uranium and is the foundation material in the process to make nuclear fuel. In the past, Iran has purchased most of its yellowcake abroad, including South Africa and China.

The U.S. and EU have tried to rein in Iran’s nuclear program with new boycotts and banking restrictions targeting Iran’s crucial oil exports, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s foreign revenue.

The Obama administration is now weighing an even harsher blow: possibly seeking Iran’s removal from SWIFT, an independent financial clearinghouse that is crucial to the country’s overseas oil sales. But such a move could push oil prices higher and undercut fragile Western economies.

Iran pushed back at Europe.

State TV quoted Foreign Ministry official Hasan Tajik as saying that six European diplomats were summoned Wednesday and told that Iran has no problem replacing customers — an implied warning that Tehran would carry out plans to cut off EU countries immediately to pre-empt sanctions set to go into effect in July.

Conflicting information about the cutoff has been relayed by Iranian media throughout the day: first the full blockade on six countries, then a report carried by the semiofficial Mehr agency saying that exports were cut to France and the Netherlands with four other European countries receiving ultimatums to sign long-term contracts with Iran.

Iranian officials say an immediate cutoff will hit European nations before they can line up new suppliers, and that Tehran has already found buyers for the 18 percent share of its oil that goes to Europe.

In Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and the EU for instituting “one-sided sanctions” on Tehran that “erode unified action against Iran’s nuclear program.”

At the same time, he said the suspicion — nurtured by years of Iranian secrecy — that Tehran is covertly working on a nuclear arms program “must be clarified without any doubt.”

In Bangkok, Thai officials held three Iranians rounded up after a cache of explosives detonated accidentally in their home. Bomb disposal teams combed the damaged house while security forces sought an Iranian woman they said had originally rented it.

Thai authorities have not disclosed any potential targets for the explosives.

Israeli defense officials, however, believe the Iranian men were plotting to attack the Israeli ambassador in Thailand, Israel’s Channel 10 TV reported. It said the investigation was still ongoing and its conclusions were not final.

In a reflection of how the attacks caught Israel off guard, the Israeli Counter Terrorism Bureau last month lifted a travel warning to Bangkok after Thai authorities arrested a suspect with alleged links to Hezbollah. The warning was issued Jan. 13 and lifted less than two weeks later.

The bureau lifted a similar travel advisory for Israelis going to Georgia in November.