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Iran signals nuclear work expansion

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran is now running 5,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, a senior official said on Wednesday, signalling an expansion of work the West fears is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

The comments by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, spelled out once again that the Islamic Republic has no intention of bowing to Western pressure to halt or freeze its disputed nuclear programme.

They also underlined the challenge facing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who after his election victory this month called for an international effort to stop Tehran developing a nuclear bomb, saying this was “unacceptable.”

The number of centrifuges given by Aghazadeh was higher than a figure of 3,800 such machines the U.N. nuclear watchdog cited in a November 19 report, which was based on a visit by its inspectors to Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant on November 7.

It also said Iran was busy installing another 2,200 machines with the introduction of 3,000 due to be begin early next year.

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have in the past differed in estimates of Iran’s nuclear programme.

As Iran builds up centrifuge capacity, analysts believe it could be as little as one or two years from stockpiling enough enriched uranium to use for a bomb, if Tehran so chose.

“Now we have 5,000 running centrifuges,” Aghazadeh told the official IRNA news agency. Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar in August said Iran had 4,000 working centrifuges.

There was no immediate comment from the IAEA in Vienna.

A senior diplomat close to the agency told Reuters: “Iran could well have 6,000 centrifuges on line by the end of the year. If you add the number of machines that were in the process of installation as of November 7, you would come close to the number they claim are working today.”

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It was not clear from Aghazadeh’s remarks whether all 5,000 were actually being fed with uranium gas for enrichment. Iran’s machines, prone to breakdown in the past, typically go through a series of tests for durability before they enrich full time.

Adding to tensions, Iran said on Wednesday it had launched a rocket called Kavosh 2 (Explorer 2), the latest in a series of ballistics tests that the West fears may form part of a bid to build missiles that could carry nuclear warheads in future.

NO SUSPENSION

Iran, the world’s fourth-largest crude producer, says its nuclear energy programme is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more oil and gas.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki criticised Britain’s “wrong” policies in the Middle East, after his British counterpart this week said “the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses the most immediate threat” to the region’s stability.

Reacting to this and other comments by Britain’s David Miliband, Iranian media quoted Mottaki as saying in reference to the outgoing U.S. president: ” ... it is better for Britain if it does not get on board Bush’s failed policy ship.”

Iran’s refusal to stop enriching uranium, which can provide fuel for nuclear power plants or material for bombs if refined to a higher degree, has drawn three rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006 as well as separate U.S. measures.

Asked about an offer by major powers including Washington to hold off on imposing more sanctions on Iran if it freezes further expansion of its nuclear activities, Aghazadeh was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency:

“Suspension of nuclear enrichment is not in our vocabulary.”

Iran launched 3,000 centrifuges, a basis for industrial scale enrichment, at Natanz in central Iran in 2007. But they are a 1970s-era P1 model, whose performance has been erratic.

“In the next five years we should install at least 50,000 machines,” Aghazadeh said, referring to fuel production Iran says it needs for a planned network of nuclear power plants.

The latest IAEA report said Iran had not boosted the number of centrifuges regularly refining uranium since September. The reason for Iran’s relatively slow progress was unclear.

Aghazadeh also said Iran aimed to start electricity production at its first nuclear power plant, the Russian-built Bushehr facility, in mid-2009 and that it was making “good progress” with work on its Arak heavy water facility.

Iran says the Arak complex will be used to make isotopes for medical and agricultural ends. The West fears it is another part of a programme to make weapons through production of plutonium.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Writing by Fredrik Dahl and Edmund Blair; Editing by Charles Dick

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