Iran promised a telling blow on its 31st anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Shi’ite theocracy, and it delivered two.  In a blow to efforts by the Obama administration to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced success at enriching uranium to the 20% level — not high enough for nuclear weapons, but high enough to show that they are close to that capacity:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed Thursday that Iran has produced its first batch of uranium enriched to a higher level, saying his country will not be bullied by the West into curtailing its nuclear program a day after the U.S. imposed new sanctions.

Ahmadinejad made the announcement in a speech to hundreds of thousands of cheering Iranians at a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Just two days earlier, Iran said it had begun enriching uranium to higher levels than before, raising fears it may be moving closer to the ability to produce material for a nuclear weapon. …

Iran said Tuesday it had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent purity to power a research reactor for production of medical isotopes, up from 3.5 percent previously. But the international community has demanded a halt to all enrichment activity because the same process is used to produce weapons-grade material if it is enriched to a level of 90 percent.

Experts say that from 20 percent enrichment, Iran could make a quick leap to weapons-grade uranium.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad delivered the second blow to Iranians with the temerity to dislike oppression.  The IRGC and the Basiji came out in force to tamp down the expected widespread protests against the government, with inconsistent success:

Opposition Web sites and international newswires reported arrests and several clashes, including security forces firing tear gas and paint balls into crowds of protesters in the capital. Family members of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi said he was attacked by plainclothes militia, though he appeared not to have been serious injured.

Protests spread to other big Iranian cities like Isfahan and Ahvaz, according to videos posted on Youtube and opposition reports. In Isfahan, opposition supporters massed on a historic city bridge, as cars honked their horns in support. Antiriot police then fired tear gas and guns in the air, chasing the crowd off the bridge, according to videos circulating on the Internet. …

Residents of Tehran, reached by phone, said much of the city had the feel of martial law, with heavy security deployed throughout the city and many shops closed. Government forces fanned out across the capital in force on Wednesday, with Revolutionary Guard Corps troops lining streets where demonstrators had signaled they would gather. Tehran residents also reported severe disruption to their Internet and cell-phone texting services late Wednesday.

Still, many opposition supporters appeared unbowed. “People are still as determined as ever to go out in the streets,” said a 40-year-old opposition supporter, reached by phone in Iran. “I don’t know anyone who has participated in previous protests and is staying home today.”

The Washington Post reports that Iran may have been exaggerating their success as a means of propaganda:

Beneath this rhetoric, U.N. reports over the last year have shown a drop in production at Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant, near the city of Natanz. Now a new assessment, based on three years of internal data from U.N. nuclear inspections, suggests that Iran’s mechanical woes are deeper than previously known. At least through the end of 2009, the Natanz plant appears to have performed so poorly that sabotage cannot be ruled out as an explanation, according to a draft study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). A copy of the report was provided to The Washington Post.

The ISIS study showed that more than half of the Natanz plant’s 8,700 uranium-enriching machines, called centrifuges, were idle at the end of last year and that the number of working machines had steadily dropped — from 5,000 in May to just over 3,900 in November. Moreover, output from the nominally functioning machines was about half of what was expected, said the report, drawing from data gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

A separate, forthcoming analysis by the Federation of American Scientists also describes Iran’s flagging performance and suggests that continued failures may increase Iran’s appetite for a deal with the West. Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the federation’s Strategic Security Program, said Iranian leaders appear to have raced into large-scale uranium production for political reasons.

While that may be true, it also takes a little pressure off of the West to act.  The assumption that Iran has technological problems in its development has been made before, and proved untrue or at least somewhat exaggerated.  Natanz has been a declared enrichment site, but another interpretation could be that the Iranians shifted the enrichment to its previously-hidden facility near Qom.  They could have reduced the work at Natanz as a deception while progressing unimpeded at this secret facility, or perhaps at other secret sites that the UN has concluded probably exist.

Regardless, the time left to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon grows shorter every day.  The Obama administration has wasted a year without any progress in slowing Iran’s progress, nor in getting Russia and China to act in concert with the West to restrain Iran.  While Obama talked about outstretched hands, Iranian mullahs cracked down on its people — who, as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry wrote earlier this week at the Washington Times, are the only real hope for stopping the Iranian mullahs from getting their hands on nuclear weapons:

While Washington focuses on a new round of sanctions, many Iranian people continue to risk their lives in the country’s growing protest movement. They continue to brave the regime’s fists, clubs, water hoses and bullets to take to the streets. They continue defiantly to hold signs and chant slogans not just in Farsi, but in English so that the whole world might know their calls for justice and dignity.

With their growing mass-protest movement, everyday Iranians already have accomplished what sanctions and other forms of multilateral pressure aim to do: create the conditions for change in Tehran.

While I support new sanctions, it is time for the White House, Congress and the entire international community to elevate the Iranian people’s struggle to the center of the world stage.

The Iranian people deserve a more moderate, reasonable and just government in Tehran. They also may be the last and best hope for halting Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons capability. And it may be the Iranian people who help the world avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Indeed.  And we have done nothing to help the Iranian people along that path.