TEHRAN: Iran has increased the number of operating centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant to 4,000, a top official said Friday, pushing ahead with its nuclear program despite threats of new UN sanctions.
The number was up from the 3,000 centrifuges that Iran announced in November that it was operating at its plant in the central city of Natanz. Still, it is well below the 6,000 it said last year that it would operate by summer 2008, suggesting the program may be behind schedule.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who visited Natanz last week, said Friday that Iran was preparing to install more centrifuges, though he did not offer a timeframe.
"Right now, nearly 4,000 centrifuges are operating at Natanz," Attar told the state news agency IRNA. "Currently, 3,000 other centrifuges are being installed."
The United Nations has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to freeze its enrichment program, which can be used to produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material needed for a nuclear warhead.
In the process, uranium gas is spun in a series of centrifuges known as "cascades" to purify it. Lower levels of enrichment produce reactor fuel - which Iran says is the sole purpose of the program - but higher grades can build a weapon.
The United States and its allies are likely to press the United Nations later this year for a new round of sanctions after Iran rejected a package of economic and technological incentives in return for suspending enrichment. But they could face strong resistance from Russia after the crisis this month in Georgia deeply damaged ties between Washington and Moscow.
Russia, which has close ties to Tehran, has long been reluctant to impose harsh sanctions - though it backed the past three rounds of limited financial sanctions.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a claim Iran denies. Tehran insists it has the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop reactor fuel using enrichment.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear monitoring agency, declined to comment on the latest Iranian announcement.
In reaching 4,000 centrifuges, the program is moving into an industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons.
Experts, however, say Iran would need to change the way the centrifuges are operating to enrich uranium to high, weapons-grade levels, something that would be difficult, since the Natanz facility is under video surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Last month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said his country possessed 6,000 centrifuges, though he did not specify how many were operating. He also suggested that negotiations with the United Nations had raised a possible compromise whereby the enrichment program could continue as long as it was not expanded beyond 6,000 centrifuges. However, the agency and the countries involved in the nuclear issue - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia - have not shown any public sign that such a compromise was on the table.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented Iran with the incentives offer in June. Iran finally sent a reply in August, but the United States and its allies said the response had not directly addressed the offer and considered it a rejection.
The workhorse of Iran's enrichment program is the P-1 centrifuge, which is run in cascades of 164 machines. But Iranian officials confirmed in February that they had started using the IR-2 centrifuge, which can churn out enriched uranium at more than double the rate.
Iran says it plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that will ultimately involve 54,000 centrifuges.