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No proof Iran running 3,000 centrifuges: diplomats

Reuters | September 4, 2007
Mark Heinrich

There is no evidence for the Iranian president's announcement that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges running, which would allow it to produce significant amounts of nuclear fuel, diplomats familiar with U.N. inspections said.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defiantly proclaimed the achievement on Sunday after Western powers cast doubt on an Iranian atomic transparency plan and warned of stiffer sanctions against Tehran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium.

Nuclear experts say 3,000 centrifuges run smoothly in unison at supersonic speed for long periods could refine enough uranium for an atom bomb in about a year, although Iran says it has no plan to develop nuclear weapons.

But Ahmadinejad's reference to 3,000 "working" appeared at odds with the latest quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, which said about 2,000 centrifuges were enriching uranium as of August 19 at the underground Natanz plant.

About 800 centrifuges were at various stages of installation and testing there and in a small pilot facility but few were enriching uranium. Even the 2,000 in the main plant were operating well below capacity, the August 30 report said.

One diplomat familiar with observations by inspectors for the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said "there's no evidence" of 3,000 centrifuges running together.

"Wishful thinking, perhaps," said the diplomat, who did not want to be named. "There are various way to count these numbers. We don't know what he meant. Maybe (Ahmadinejad) just combined numbers from the main plant and pilot facility."

Another diplomat close to the IAEA said, "Ahmadinejad may just be reflecting the number of centrifuges installed."

SOME ADVANCES POSSIBLE

Analysts could not rule out that Iran had made production advances since mid-August, but it was unlikely to be to the extent that Ahmadinejad suggested.

The first diplomat said IAEA inspectors could revisit the Natanz complex and bring back updated figures for a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors that is to begin on Monday.

Iran says it wants nuclear technology to generate electricity so it can export more oil, but has failed to convince big powers it is not covertly trying to build bombs.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed two rounds of limited sanctions since December and Western countries have threatened to toughen them.

Ahmadinejad first announced "industrial" enrichment capacity in April. But many analysts have treated periodic Iranian statements about atomic breakthroughs with skepticism, saying they could be meant to convince Western foes the programme is irreversible -- even if U.N. sanctions are intensified.

The IAEA report indicated that the pace of Iran's centrifuge installation had slowed markedly since April. Diplomats cite as possible factors both technical difficulties and political restraint designed to head off more painful sanctions.

Iran has repeatedly dismissed reports that its programme is stumbling and vowed to resist any sanctions.

 

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