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Iran says expanded number of centrifuges to enrich uranium PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Desk Report

Iran's president said today that the country dramatically expanded the number of machines it has producing enriched uranium, defying international demands for the country to halt the production of nuclear material.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quoted by official and semi-official media, also seemed to suggest that Iran might be willing to stop adding any more centrifuges, a condition for preliminary talks to end the diplomatic standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad told scholars in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad that Iran possessed more than 5,000 centrifuges, which can produce nuclear material suitable for a power plant or, if highly enriched, an atomic bomb. A report by the International Atomic Energy Assn. in May said Iran had about 3,500 centrifuges running.

"We have more than 5,000 centrifuges in operation," state television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

There was some confusion about the actual number. One Iranian news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying Iran had 6,000 centrifuges working while another said he referred to "hundreds and thousands" of centrifuges.

"The West wanted us to stop," he was quoted as telling a group of scholars. "We resisted, and now they want to resume negotiations."

Iran insists its controversial nuclear program is meant only to provide electricity. But the U.S., Israel, Europe and most Western arms control experts suspect Iran is trying to at least attain the capability to begin producing bombs quickly if it so decides. Turning the reactor-grade uranium Iran currently produces into weapons-grade material is relatively easy, experts say.

In theory, 5,000 centrifuges running continuously can produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb in seven months. But Iran's enrichment program has been bedeviled by technical problems.

Iran said in April it was on the verge of putting a total of 6,000 centrifuges into operation. Ahmadinejad's comments today were the first public statement asserting an expansion. Iran says it hopes to eventually have more than 50,000 centrifuges operating at its enrichment plant near the town of Natanz.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana offered Iranians a U.S.-endorsed package of incentives meant to entice Iran to stop producing enriched uranium. He also proposed a six-week period of pre-negotiations during which Iran would add no centrifuges and the West would refrain from pushing for a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.

Iran failed to respond to either offer during talks July 19 in Geneva, which were attended by U.S. Undersecretary of State William J. Burns in the highest-level diplomatic contact between Tehran and Washington for nearly 30 years.

Solana and Burns, as well as British, French, Russian and Chinese envoys gave Tehran a deadline of late July to respond positively to the offer or face a new round of sanctions, which could include prohibitions on selling Iran refined petroleum products it desperately needs to run its economy.

Iran has decried the deadline and refused to commit to stopping the expansion of its program. But in comments today, Ahmadinejad seemed to leave open the possibility that Iran would stop expanding, albeit at a higher number of centrifuges than previously thought and for longer than six weeks.

"Today they [the West] have agreed that the existing 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges do not increase and that there is no problem if this number of centrifuges work," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by state radio, according to Agence France Presse.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that no negotiations can begin with Iran before it halts all enrichment-related activities.

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