Iran has installed many more uranium enrichment machines in an underground bunker, diplomatic sources said on Thursday, potentially paving the way for a significant expansion of work the West fears is ultimately aimed at making nuclear bombs.

Several sources said Iran had put in place additional enrichment centrifuges in its Fordow facility, buried deep inside a mountain to protect it against any enemy strikes.

One source suggested it involved hundreds of machines.

“Our basic understanding is that they were continuing to install,” a Vienna-based diplomat said, adding the new centrifuges were not yet operating.

If confirmed in a report expected next week from the UN atomic watchdog, the development is likely to be seen as a sign of Iran’s continued defiance of international demands to curb its nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful.

At Fordow, near the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, Iran is enriching uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, activity which the West wants it to stop immediately as it brings it closer to the level required for nuclear weapons.

In a possible sign of further Iranian defiance in the face of such pressure, several sources said Iran had put in place additional enrichment centrifuges in the Fordow facility, buried deep inside a mountain to protect it against enemy strikes.

One source suggested hundreds of machines had been installed.

The most recently retired IDF chief of staff, Lt.-Col (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, has added his voice to the chorus of former defense officials saying that there was no need for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program at this time.

One Western envoy said that the suspected clean-up at Parchin was “intensifying” and that this made it doubtful that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would uncover any hard evidence there, even if they were allowed to go.

“Given the extent of the cleanup, it is indeed unlikely the agency, if it ever gets access, would find anything at Parchin,” the diplomat said.

There was no immediate comment from Iran's mission to the Vienna-based UN atomic agency. It has previously dismissed the allegations about Parchin, which it says is a conventional military facility, as “ridiculous.”

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In video footage taken by a Makor Rishon journalist and aired on Channel 2 on Thursday evening, Ashkenazi said that “we’re still not there,” adding that a metaphorical nuclear suitcase was not about to be sent in Israel’s direction from Iran.

Instead of a strike, Ashkenazi said, a “combination of strategies” should be employed at this time, listing a covert war and economic sanctions coupled with diplomacy as some of the required steps.

“These should be supported by a third strategy, and that is keeping a military option that is realistic and credible,” Ashkenazi added. “That is what I think has to be done.

The former army chief said he hoped a combination of all the measures would be enough to get Iran to suspend its nuclear program.

Turning his attention to the civil war raging in Syria, Ashkenazi said the toppling of the Assad regime would “at the end of the day improve our strategic situation... even if Assad is replaced by a Sunni regime or government.”

Ashkenazi said that he did not believe Egypt would turn into a violent Islamist regime hellbent on using force against Israel anytime soon.

“I don’t think they can commit a serious act even if they get [the capabilities],” he said.

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