* Iran aims to have 20,000 MW in nuclear energy capacity
* Seeks foreign suppliers for atomic power plants
* West suspects nuclear programme is cover for bomb aims
(Repeats to delete superfluous word in paragraph 18)
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Iran justifies its atomic activity with plans to set up a network of nuclear power plants, but Western analysts say a lack of indigenous resources and growing international isolation make those ambitions look far-fetched.
The issue of whether Iran can build as many as 20 reactors during the next two decades goes to the heart of an eight-year diplomatic row over the Islamic state’s nuclear programme.
Iran insists it needs to enrich uranium -- material which can also be used to make weapons if refined much further -- to fuel future power stations designed to generate electricity and enable the country to export more of its gas and oil riches.
It says its first such facility, a Russian-built 1,000 megawatt (MW) reactor near the Gulf coast city of Bushehr, will start supplying energy in early 2011 after years of delays.
But the United States and its allies believe Iran’s uranium enrichment is part of a covert weapons drive and have imposed tough sanctions on Tehran to force it to halt the work.
“It is simply unrealistic to build so many nuclear reactors in such a short time,” said Oliver Thraenert, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“The Iranians don’t have the experience, they don’t have the infrastructure and it is possible they don’t have the money due to the sanctions,” he said.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, told the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s annual assembly in Vienna last month about a parliament decision to construct nuclear power plants generating a total of 20,000 MW by 2030.
He urged “all potential suppliers to seize this opportunity to participate in the construction of the new power plants”.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior U.S. State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London, dismissed this as a “pipe dream” which made no economic sense.
“Talking about 20,000 MW capacity is an excuse to try to justify the enrichment programme,” he said.
Ian Anthony, director of the arms control and non-proliferation programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said building the number of power plants Iran wanted would be “extremely expensive” but not impossible.
Critics of Iran’s nuclear programme argue that it makes no commercial sense for it to enrich uranium in the absence of plants to use the fuel, he said. But if the country had more atomic power stations then it could become more logical.
The question is whether the plan to establish such a nuclear energy network is “an after-the-fact construct to reduce criticism of the enrichment programme or whether it is the true intention of Iran to build these power plants”, Anthony said.
With Iran facing increased political and economic isolation, global nuclear energy firms are unlikely to enter the Islamic Republic at a time of growing international demand for nuclear plants which can cost about $4 billion.
“It’s a seller’s market. Foreign companies wouldn’t be tripping over themselves doing business there in the current circumstances,” said Ian Hore-Lacy, public communications director of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) industry body.
Iran lacked some of the manufacturing capacities to make key components itself, he said.
Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said no “suppliers anywhere in the world, including China and Russia, will export reactors to Iran” as long as it is deemed to be violating U.N. resolutions.
Iran, which now gets 90 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, invited bids in 2007 for two reactors near Bushehr of 1,000 and 1,600 MW each that would be launched in 2016.
“It is not known whether any bids were received,” the WNA said on its website, adding the country has also announced plans to construct a 360 MW reactor at Darkhovin in its southeast.
As part of this nuclear expansion drive, Iran says it will build 10 more enrichment plants, on top of its only operating one at Natanz and another under construction in a mountain bunker near the city of Qom, further worrying the West.
“They have some interest in civilian use of nuclear energy. But I‘m totally convinced that their more important motivation is to create a nuclear weapons option,” Thraenert said.
Olli Heinonen, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s inspections worldwide, now at Harvard University, said only Iran itself knew what its nuclear aims really were.
“It has to do with prestige, it is to do with their own security, to be a regional player, it is a complex thing. It is not just about, let’s say, nuclear weapons or to produce fuel for Bushehr,” Heinonen said. (Editing by Paul Taylor)