- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

12:12 p.m.

NATANZ, Iran — Iran today announced it has begun enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges, a dramatic expansion of a nuclear program that has drawn U.N. sanctions and condemnation from the West.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a ceremony at the enrichment facility at Natanz that Iran was now capable of enriching nuclear fuel “on an industrial scale.”

Asked if Iran has begun injecting uranium gas into 3,000 centrifuges for enrichment, top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani replied, “Yes.” He did not elaborate, but it was the first confirmation that Iran had installed the larger set of centrifuges after months of saying it intends to do so. Until now, Iran was only known to have 328 centrifuges operating.

Uranium enrichment can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material for a nuclear warhead. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of intending to produce weapons, a charge the country denies.

Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. nuclear watchdog group “don’t believe Iran’s assurances that their [nuclear] program is peaceful in nature.”

The Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, had no immediate comment on today’s announcement.

The United Nations has vowed to ratchet up sanctions as long as Iran refuses to suspend enrichment. The Security Council first imposed limited sanctions in December, then increased them slightly last month and has set a new deadline of late May.

Iranian state television reported today that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general who is under travel restrictions due to the sanctions has visited Russia without any difficulty.

Gen. Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who is also deputy interior minister for security affairs, was quoted on the state TV Web site as saying that his six-day journey to Moscow, which ended today, showed “the ineffectiveness of the resolution.”

Tensions are also high between Iran and the West following the 13-day detention of 15 British sailors by Iran. The sailors, who were seized by Revolutionary Guards off the Iraqi coast, were released on Wednesday, but since then have said they were put under psychological pressure by their captors to force them to “confess” to being in Iranian waters when captured, angering many in Britain.

Across Iran, school bells rang today to mark the “national day of nuclear energy.” The government sent out text messages of congratulations for the occasion to millions of mobile phone users.

In Tehran, some 200 students formed a human chain at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization while chanting “death to America” and “death to Britain.” The students burnt flags of the two nations.

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