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Iran signals nuclear work expansion, rules out halt

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

The comments by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, 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 program.

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 have in the past differed in estimates of Iran’s nuclear program.

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 said in August that 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.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brushed off the centrifuge report, saying Iran tended not to be reliable about such information, and the rocket test.

“The Iranians are launching things all the time. ... I don’t think anybody is confused about the balance of power in the Gulf,” Rice told reporters, pointing to the large U.S. military presence in the region.

NO SUSPENSION

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

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

Reacting to that and other comments by Britain’s David Miliband, Iranian media quoted Mottaki as saying in reference to U.S. President George W. Bush, “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 by the ISNA news agency as saying, “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. 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.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Writing by Fredrik Dahl and Edmund Blair; Editing by Charles Dick and Peter Cooney

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