TEHRAN Iran has 4,000 working nuclear centrifuges, an official said in remarks published on Friday, in line with a number verified by the U.N. atomic watchdog but lower than a figure cited by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran says it is installing centrifuges to enrich uranium so it can make fuel for nuclear power plants. But the West accuses Tehran of seeking to master technology so it can enrich uranium to much higher levels for use in nuclear warheads.
Ahmadinejad said last month Iran had more than 5,000 centrifuges running but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which routinely checks Iranian nuclear sites, later said he appeared to have overstated the number by at least 1,000.
"There are currently close to 4,000 centrifuges active at Natanz enrichment facility. ... Another 3,000 centrifuges are being installed," Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar told state television, the official IRNA news agency reported.
World powers have offered Iran a package of trade, nuclear and other incentives to halt its sensitive nuclear work, but Tehran has repeatedly said it will not do so.
The United States and its Western allies are pushing for more U.N. sanctions, after three sets were imposed since 2006.
Analysts say Washington may find it more difficult to get U.N. Security Council backing for another resolution because of the Georgian crisis with Russia, which has council veto rights.
Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, has brushed off sanctions, saying it has a cash cushion to cope. But analysts say sanctions, though limited, are deterring particularly Western investors and raising Iran's trade costs.
"If the Westerners could make sure that the resolutions would bring us down, they would certainly have intensified those ... They also know that extra-resolution measures would cost them more," the deputy minister said.
Ahmadinejad travels to New York in September for the U.N. General Assembly. He used last year's visit to try to address the United States with a meeting at a university in New York.
"The president is of the opinion that the American people can be our influential targets," Sheikh Attar said.
This year's visit follows U.S. and other reports that Washington was considering opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran, after diplomatic ties were severed in 1980. The Swiss embassy now handles any U.S.-related affairs in Iran.
Tehran has said it has not been notified of any such plans.
"It would be gullible to think that America is seeking to relinquish its past policy," Sheikh Attar said.
"We have received no note in this connection, but if we are to receive a note, as Mr Ahmadinejad says, we will examine it and will decide with a view to the interests of the two countries," the deputy minister added.
A senior foreign policy adviser to the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate said on Thursday Barack Obama could open talks with Iran on its nuclear program early next year if he wins the November U.S. election.
Former U.S. national security adviser Tony Lake suggested Washington needed to give Tehran a sharper choice between the consequences of continuing its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and the benefits of giving it up.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammad in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood)