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Iran is ready to start assembling 3,000 centrifuges to produce enriched uranium - a possible pathway to nuclear arms - after finishing most preliminary work on an underground facility housing such machines, a diplomat and a UN official said Thursday.
The two - who demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information - said much, but not all of the hardware needed for the installation of the centrifuges was now in place at the Natanz facility designated to house Teheran's industrial-scale enrichment program.
Both men emphasized that the facility had been ready for some time, and there was no sign that actual work on putting in the centrifuges would begin at any particular date.
Still, there has been speculation that the hard-line leadership might start doing so next month, to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that brought the clerical leadership to power.
The revelations - based on reports by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency visiting Natanz this week - appeared to strengthen claims from Teheran that it is moving toward large-scale enrichment involving 3,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium gas into enriched material. Low-enriched uranium can be used to generate power, while highly enriched levels serve as the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
"We are moving toward the production of nuclear fuel, which requires 3,000 centrifuges and more than this figure," government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters Monday. "This program is being carried out and moving toward completion."
Iran's leaders have suggested those machines would be in place by March 20, the end of the Iranian year. But the diplomat and official said quick completion of such a large-scale project was unlikely, describing the complicated process of setting up linked "cascades" of thousands of centrifuges that are needed to repeatedly spin uranium to varying degrees of enrichment as taking "months," even for countries with more technically advanced enrichment programs than the Islamic republic.
Another point of uncertainty is how many centrifuges Iran has assembled. The IAEA has not seen any beyond the few hundred Teheran has shown inspectors. But David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks Iran's nuclear activities, said Teheran technicians are likely to have built more than 1,000 of the machines at a secret location.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of trying to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran denies this, saying its program is only for generating electricity. Teheran says that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has the right to develop a peaceful uranium enrichment program to produce nuclear power.
The IAEA has said it has found no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, but it has criticized the country for concealing certain nuclear activities, conducting experiments with possible links to weapons programs, possessing a drawing linked to nuclear warheads and failing to answer questions about the program.
Iran first showed its ability to enrich uranium in February, when it produced a small batch of low-enriched material using a first set of 164 centrifuges at its pilot complex in Natanz.
Iran plans to ultimately expand its enrichment program to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium gas into enriched material to produce nuclear fuel. That would give if the capacity to produce dozens of nuclear warheads a year, if it chose to develop weapons.
The diplomat - who had been briefed on the IAEA inspectors' latest findings - said the Iranians recently finished "putting down the cabling, the air conditioning and all the other hardware," all part of the preliminary setup for the installation of centrifuges linked in cascades.
While "they are bound to have some technical problems, they are capable" of setting up the machines and running them, he told The Associated Press.
The only known assembled cascades for now are above ground at Natanz, consisting of two linked chains of 164 machines each and two smaller setups.
The two larger cascades have been running only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium, while the smaller assemblies have been underground "dry testing" since late November, IAEA inspectors have reported.
That has led to experts and diplomats speculating that Iran was hesitant to provoke UN Security Council sanctions harsher than the relatively mild penalties agreed on last month in response to Teheran's refusal to heed a council deadline to suspend enrichment. Or, they said, it could be a sign of headway by relative moderates in the leadership unhappy with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's confrontational manner.
But the president denounced his critics Thursday, saying their calls for compromise echo "the words of the enemy" and will not affect his government's nuclear policies.
Iran's refusal to suspend enrichment work led the Security Council to impose sanctions on Dec. 23 - relatively mild penalties banning specified materials and technology that could contribute to Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
It also imposed an asset freeze on key companies and individuals in the country's nuclear and missile programs named on a UN list and gave the country 60 days to comply or face the likelihood of tougher nonmilitary sanctions.