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No proof Iran running 3,000 centrifuges: diplomats

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges running is not backed up by evidence, diplomats familiar with U.N. inspections said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with journalists during a news conference in Tehran, August 28, 2007. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Ahmadinejad said on Sunday that Iran had 3,000 working centrifuges. With 3,000 centrifuges running smoothly in unison at supersonic speed for long periods, Iran could refine enough uranium for an atom bomb in about a year, nuclear experts say.

“There’s no evidence,” a diplomat said, when asked whether Iran had mastered the technology to get 3,000 centrifuges running effectively together.

Ahmadinejad’s statement also appeared at odds with findings by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors monitoring Iran’s underground Natanz plant.

The IAEA’s latest quarterly report on Iran, issued last Thursday, said almost 2,000 centrifuges were enriching uranium in tandem as of August 19, with about 650 in various stages of installation and testing.

Inspectors revisited the plant on Monday and found about 325 more centrifuges being hooked up, closing in on the 3,000 threshold, diplomats said on Tuesday.

But the initial 2,000 were operating well below capacity, the report said, suggesting Iran has some way to go before establishing an industrial rate of enrichment.

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“Ahmadinejad may just be reflecting the number of centrifuges installed,” another diplomat close to the IAEA, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“The 3,000 figure is symbolically important for Iran. Ahmadinejad is seizing on it to show his domestic public that the program has not bogged down ... or buckled to U.N. pressure to stop,” a European diplomat said.

Iran denies western accusations it is seeking nuclear bombs, saying its program is meant to generate electricity. It faces the threat of fresh UN sanctions if it fails to convince inspectors that its program is intended for peaceful purposes.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed two rounds of limited sanctions since December.

Ahmadinejad first announced industrial enrichment capacity in April. But many analysts have treated periodic Iranian statements about atomic breakthroughs with skepticism, saying they could be meant to convince Western foes the program is irreversible -- even if U.N. sanctions are intensified.

The IAEA report indicated that Iran’s expansion of enrichment work had slowed since April. Diplomats cite as possible factors both technical difficulties and political restraint designed to head off more sanctions.

U.N. officials say that whatever Iran’s pace, it seems on track to mastering the enrichment process eventually.