Report: Iran now has 6,000 centrifuges for uranium

Iran’s president said Saturday his country now possesses 6,000 centrifuges, a significant increase in its nuclear program that is certain to further rankle the United States and others who fear Tehran is intent on developing weapons.

The new figure is double the 3,000 uranium-enriching machines Iran had previously said it was operating.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement, reported by the semi-official Fars news agency, comes a week after the U.S. reversed course in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program by sending a top American diplomat to participate in talks between Tehran and world powers.

The bend in policy had prompted hopes for a compromise under which Iran would agree to temporarily stop expansion of enrichment activities. But the White House said Saturday’s development did not facilitate a resolution.

“Announcements like this, whatever the true number is, are not productive and will only serve to further isolate Iran from the international community,” said White House spokesman Carlton Carroll.

Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, declared in April that it was aiming to double the 3,000 centrifuges it was running in its underground uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

“Islamic Iran today possesses 6,000 centrifuges,” Fars news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying Saturday in an address to university professors in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

Washington and its allies have been demanding a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment — something Tehran has repeatedly refused to do.

The July 19 talks in Geneva were aimed at trying to reach a deal with Iran, and in exchange, the six world powers — the U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China — would hold off on adopting new U.N. sanctions against Iran. The country is already is under three sets of U.N. sanctions for its refusal to suspend enrichment.

But participants in Geneva said Iranian negotiators skirted the freeze issue despite the presence of U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later accused Iran of not being serious at the Geneva talks. She warned that Iran would face a fourth set of U.N. penalties if it does not meet a two-week deadline to agree to freeze suspect activities and start negotiations.

On Saturday, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, lashed back at U.S. criticism of his country’s role in the Geneva talks.

His U.S. counterpart, Gregory L. Schulte, told the British Daily Telegraph in an interview published earlier this week that Tehran’s chief negotiator delivered a “rambling” discourse in Geneva instead of focusing on the talks.

Soltanieh told The Associated Press on Saturday that Schulte’s comments “further damage his credibility and that of his country.” He described the Geneva talks as “successful and constructive.”

Ahmadinejad asserted Saturday that Iran’s interlocutors had agreed to allow it to continue to run its program as long as it was not expanded beyond 6,000 centrifuges, state radio reported.

“Today, they have consented that the existing 5,000 or 6,000 centrifuges not be increased and that operation of this number of centrifuges is not a problem,” state radio quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

A report by the U.N.’s nuclear monitoring agency that was delivered to the U.N. Security Council in May said Iran had 3,500 centrifuges, though a senior U.N. official said at the time that Iran’s goal of 6,000 machines running by the summer was “pretty much plausible.”

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into a series of centrifuges called “cascades.” The gas is spun at supersonic speeds to remove impurities. Enriching at a low level produces nuclear fuel, but at a higher level it can produce the material for a warhead.

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.

A total of 3,000 centrifuges is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons.

Iran says it plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that will ultimately involve 54,000 centrifuges.

Ahmadinejad called the U.S. participation in the latest round of nuclear talks “a victory for Iran.” In the past, the U.S. said it would join talks only if Iran suspends uranium enrichment first.

“The presence of a U.S. representative … was a victory for Iran, irrespective of the outcome. … The U.S. condition was for Iran to suspend enrichment but they attended (the talks) without such a condition being met,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying in the state radio report.

On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad praised the U.S. participation at the talks as a step toward recognizing Tehran’s right to acquire nuclear technology.

Associated Press Writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna.
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