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Iran says a key nuclear goal has been reached

Special to The Times

Iran claimed Sunday that it had reached its goal of running 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, a much higher number than recently estimated by the United Nations’ atomic agency. If true, the accomplishment might allow Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb within a year, military experts have calculated.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by state television as saying that despite economic sanctions by the United Nations, his country had “taken another step in the nuclear progress and launched more than 3,000 centrifuge machines.”

It could not be independently verified whether Iran had reached its long-sought objective; the West has often accused the nation of exaggerating its nuclear capabilities for domestic propaganda. Centrifuges spin at high rates of speed to enrich uranium that could ultimately be used to make nuclear weapons or generate electricity.

A report released last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Tehran has nowhere near 3,000 centrifuges operating. The agency found that the country’s plant at Natanz was running 1,968 centrifuges, a 50% increase over the number it had on line in April. The report also says Iran has enriched uranium to only 3.7%, well below the 90% needed for weapons-grade material.

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Ahmadinejad’s announcement is certain to further agitate Washington and its European allies. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, but the Bush administration maintains that Iran has created a secret procurement and production network to make weapons.

Iran has already faced economic sanctions and three U.N. resolutions for refusing to cooperate with IAEA inspectors and curtail its nuclear ambitions. A fourth round of sanctions is possible when the United Nations Security Council meets this month.

The IAEA’s recent report suggests that Tehran may have actually slowed its nuclear program. The agency found that Iran was making progress on its cooperation with the West but had yet to convince inspectors of the exact aim of its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad’s announcement, which was carried by a number of state news agencies, came as moderates within the government have criticized hard-liners for not being more compliant with U.N. demands. In comments last week, President Bush said Iran’s nuclear agenda would put the Middle East under the shadow of “a nuclear holocaust.”

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Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini responded to the charge Sunday: “What Mr. Bush said about the danger of nuclear holocaust in the region is baseless and, in fact, applies to the U.S. as the Americans were the first in [carrying out] a nuclear holocaust in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Fleishman from Cairo.


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