- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MOSCOW — Russia voiced skepticism yesterday about Iran’s announcement of a dramatic expansion of its uranium enrichment program, saying it had yet to receive confirmation of the claim from the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

France and Australia also questioned Iran’s claim of acquiring an industrial-scale nuclear fuel production capability.

Two U.N. inspectors have arrived in Iran to visit its uranium enrichment plant, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. An official of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization confirmed their arrival, and said the visit was “routine.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Iran said Monday it has begun operating 3,000 centrifuges — nearly 10 times the previously known number — in defiance of U.N. demands that the Persian country halt its nuclear program or face increased sanctions. The United States, Britain, France and others criticized the announcement.

Russia was unaware, however, of “any recent technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program that would change the format of its enrichment effort,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said. The Russian government helped build Iran’s only nuclear reactor and knows its nuclear program well.

“We haven’t got a confirmation yet that they have actually begun uranium enrichment at the new cascades” of centrifuges, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei also questioned the Iranian assertion, saying that “there are announcements, and then there is technological reality.”

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer voiced similar doubts about Iran’s ability to produce substantial quantities of enriched uranium: “Now I’m not sure if that is true or not.”

On Monday, analysts said the assertion seemed questionable.

David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector, said that “it would be very hard to believe” that Iran has been able to enlarge its centrifuge cascade so dramatically. “It all hinges on whether Iran will be able to get the machines working together” at a constant rate.

Iran is known to have had 328 centrifuges operating at its Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran. For months, the Muslim state has been saying it plans to start an expanded program of 3,000, likely to be set up in a large underground area at Natanz to protect them from air strikes.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into centrifuges, which spin and purify the gas. Enriched to a low degree, the result is fuel for a reactor, but to a high degree it creates material for a nuclear warhead.

The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

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