* Sanctions have so far failed to stop Iran's nuclear drive
* Some 19,000 centrifuges installed in seven years
* Advanced equipment could speed up enrichment further
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Oct 11 When the U.N. Security Council
first imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006 to try to make it halt
its nuclear activity, the Islamic state had a nascent uranium
enrichment programme with a couple of hundred centrifuges it was
Seven years later - a period which has seen the major oil
producer come under increasing international punitive measures -
it has installed more than 19,000 such machines for processing
uranium, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
The figures, from quarterly reports by the U.N. nuclear
watchdog, demonstrate Iran's determination to press ahead with a
project it says is peaceful but which the West fears is aimed at
developing the capability to assemble atomic bombs.
At the same time, it has amassed stocks of low- and
medium-enriched uranium gas - 6.8 tonnes and 186 kg respectively
- that experts say would be enough for several bombs if
processed further to weapons-grade material.
The sanctions are taking a heavy toll on Iran's economy -
its daily earnings from oil sales have tumbled 60 percent since
2011 to $100 million - but they have not stopped its nuclear
World powers hope to persuade Iran at talks in Geneva on
Oct. 15-16 to scale back its uranium enrichment. It is no longer
considered realistic to expect Tehran to agree to suspend all
enrichment, as demanded by the Security Council.
With 17 declared nuclear facilities across the country, the
atomic programme has "become a point of national pride", said
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank. "Iran's
nuclear programme cannot be wished or bombed away."
Director General Yukiya Amano of the U.N.'s International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has inspectors in Iran almost
all the time, told Reuters in June that Tehran was making
"steady progress" in expanding its nuclear programme and
sanctions did not seem to be slowing it down.
DOUBLING OF NUCLEAR CAPACITY
Since 2006, Iran has crossed several thresholds deemed
unacceptable by the West and Israel - believed to be the Middle
East's only nuclear-armed power - which has threatened military
strikes to ensure that its foe does not acquire such arms.
Iran built a second uranium enrichment plant at Fordow, deep
underground near the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom, started
producing uranium to a level closer to that suitable for bombs,
and installed advanced centrifuges able to enrich much faster.
Illustrating the nuclear programme's growth and increasing
complexity, the IAEA's reports have more than doubled in length,
to 14 pages this year from just five in 2006.
Despite a more moderate tone from Iran under new President
Hassan Rouhani, Vienna-based diplomats say they see no clear
indication so far that Iran is putting the brakes on its nuclear
Between May and August this year, it installed an additional
1,861 old-generation centrifuges at its main enrichment site
near the town of Natanz, bringing the total to 15,416, although
only about 60 percent of them seemed to be in operation.
At the same time, Iran completed putting in place 1,008
advanced, so-called IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz and was planning
to test them, the IAEA said in a report issued in late August.
At Fordow, it continued to produce medium-enriched uranium -
refined to 20 percent concentration of the fissile isotope -
with 700 IR-1 centrifuges out of a total of 2,710 installed.
In addition, it has 328 IR-1 machines producing the same
medium-enriched material in a research and development facility
in the Natanz complex, as well as nearly 400 centrifuges of
various models it is testing, including more advanced ones.
Iran's total number of centrifuges - machines that spin at
supersonic speed to separate the fissile U-235 isotope - comes
to over 19,800. The fact that many of them remain idle suggests
that Iran could sharply ramp up production at short notice.
"Iran could quickly begin feeding natural uranium into these
cascades (linked networks of centrifuges) and more than double
its enrichment capacity," said David Albright of the Institute
for Science and International Security think-tank.
Iran says it makes the centrifuges itself, but nuclear
experts believe it likely needs to procure special components
and materials for the equipment abroad, evading sanctions aimed
at stopping the trade.