IENNA, Austria - Shrugging off the threat of tougher UN sanctions, Iran has
set up more than 300 centrifuges in two uranium enrichment units at its
underground Natanz complex, diplomats and officials said Monday.
The move potentially opens the way
for larger scale enrichment that could be used to create nuclear warheads.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly said the Natanz underground hall would house
first 3,000 centrifuges and ultimately 54,000 machines.
An Iranian technician works at the Uranium Conversion
Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles (410 kilometers) south
of the capital Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2007. [AP]
It also poses a direct challenge to the Security Council, which late last
month imposed limited sanctions targeting programs and individuals linked to
Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs - and warned of stricter
penalties within 60 days unless Iran freezes enrichment.
Speaking separately - and demanding anonymity because their information was
confidential - a diplomat accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic
Energy Agency and a US official said that two "cascades" of 164 centrifuges each
had been set up in recent days.
The likely next step was "dry testing" - running the linkups without uranium
gas inside - to be followed by attempts to spin and re-spin the gas. The
process, known as enrichment, can be used to fuel nuclear power plants. But at
higher levels of enrichment the material can be used for the core of nuclear
Both the Iranian leadership and the Vienna-based IAEA, which is the UN's
nuclear watchdog agency, had said recently that Tehran would start assembling
the machines this month.
In another sign that Tehran was forging ahead with plans to create a
large-scale "pilot plant" of 3,000 centrifuges running in series, UN officials
late last week told the AP that that piping, cables, control panels and air
conditioning systems had been installed at Natanz to support such a number of
David Albright, the former UN nuclear inspector whose Washington-based
Institute for Science and International Security tracks Iran's nuclear
activities, said the country was likely capable of hooking up 300 to 500
centrifuges a month, allowing it to reach its goal of a 3,000-machine linkup
Such an operation could be used to produce fissile material for two bombs a
year, but Albright - like other analysts - suggested that it could take somewhat
longer as the Iranians have had only limited success in running the machines for
prolonged periods without breakdowns in aboveground tests at Natanz.
Iran says it wants to use the technology to generate nuclear power, but the
US and other nations believe Tehran is intent on using the process to develop
weapons. Albright said Iran could opt to create a large stockpile of
low-enriched uranium which it could then use to "break out" and re-enrich to
weapons grade at any time.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank,
last week estimated that Iran was two to three years away from having the
capacity to build a nuclear weapon. The head of US national intelligence, John
Negroponte, has spoken of a four-year period.
The State Department did not comment directly on the reported centrifuge
setups, saying only that it would push for "incremental" UN Security Council
sanctions against Iran if Tehran authorities continue to ignore council demands
for suspension of the country's uranium enrichment program.
Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Iran appears to be continuing "down the
path of isolation."