- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

TEHRAN | President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Saturday that Iran now possesses 6,000 centrifuges, a significant increase in the number of uranium-enriching machines in its nuclear program, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

The new figure is double the 3,000 centrifuges that Iran had previously said it was operating in its uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz.

“Islamic Iran today possesses 6,000 centrifuges,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told university professors in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

The assertion that Iran has reached that goal is certain to further rankle the United States and other world powers. Washington and its allies have been demanding a halt to Iran’s enrichment out of fear that it is intent on using the technology to develop weapons.

Iran vehemently denies those allegations and says it is interested in enrichment only for its nuclear-power program.

The White House said that Iran’s pronouncement does not facilitate a resolution to the nuclear standoff.

“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. “We have offered a generous incentives package to the Iranians. We urge them to suspend enrichment and accept the package. If they don’t, more sanctions are the next step.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad made the announcement a week after the U.S. reversed course by sending a top American diplomat to participate in negotiations with Iran, prompting hopes for a compromise.

But those talks fizzled when Iran refused to consider a revised deal that involves suspending enrichment, and the six negotiating powers - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - gave Iran two weeks to respond positively or face a new round of sanctions.

Iran already is under three sets of U.N. sanctions for its refusal to suspend enrichment.

In April, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran had begun installing 6,000 centrifuges at Natanz. His reported comments Saturday provided the first public assertion that Iran has reached that goal.

Mr. Ahmadinejad asserted 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 Mr. Ahmadinejad as saying on Saturday.

A report by the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency that was delivered to the Security Council in May said Iran had 3,500 centrifuges, although 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.”

Uranium can be used as nuclear-reactor fuel or as the core for atomic warheads, depending on the degree of enrichment.

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 ultimately will involve 54,000 centrifuges.

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