April 10, 2008 / 3:33 PM / in 11 years

U.S. skeptical about Iranian nuclear advances

LONDON (Reuters) - Washington is skeptical that Iran is installing 6,000 new centrifuges to enrich uranium and testing an advanced centrifuge with greater capacity, a top U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008. REUTERS/Presidential official website/Handout

Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, told reporters they should take “with a grain of salt” comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday.

Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium, which can be used as fuel in power plants or, if highly refined, for nuclear weapons. The West fears Iran’s objective is to make a bomb. Tehran says its program is for peaceful uses only.

“Ahmadinejad has a record of making bold political announcements not necessarily supported by technical facts,” Schulte said, calling the speech more of a “political stunt”.

“Iran has not yet mastered the capability to enrich uranium although they are obviously working very hard to do this,” he told a news conference.

Iran has a number of centrifuges in operation but experts say it has not mastered the highly sophisticated process of producing uranium in the quantities needed to fuel a nuclear power plant or to build an atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, Schulte said the path Ahmadinejad was taking was of “enormous concern” to the United States and others.

“Clearly President Ahmadinejad and the leadership in Iran are disregarding the concerns of the international community and they are also violating now four resolutions of the (U.N.) Security Council...,” he said.

The Security Council has imposed three rounds of limited sanctions since 2006 on Iran for refusing to stop enriching uranium. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, says it wants nuclear power to generate electricity to meet high demand.

MILITARY OPTION

While urging Iran to negotiate, Schulte said Washington kept open the “military option” to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“I think the president (George W. Bush) is very careful not to take options off the table but ... our goal is to get a diplomatic solution,” he said. The military option was “not the next option, I can say that for sure”.

“Sometimes I’ve worried that perhaps the only person in the world who would like a military option could be that crazy guy President Ahmadinejad. He seems to revel in isolation, he seems to revel in defiance,” he said.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany will meet on April 16 in Shanghai and are expected to discuss whether to sweeten incentives they offered to Iran in 2006 to curb its nuclear program.

Schulte said the offer was “pretty darn generous”. “It’s a big offer ... and it’s an offer, so it’s also available to negotiate,” he said. “Rather than just negotiate among ourselves, we’d like Iran to seriously consider the offer.”

Iran has ruled out halting or limiting its nuclear work in exchange for trade and other incentives, and says it will only negotiate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Editing by David Clarke

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