Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday Iran is now capable of enriching nuclear fuel "on an industrial scale," a claim that senior officials in Israel brushed off as "nuclear boasting."
Ahmadinejad's statement at a ceremony at the Natanz enrichment facility came as Teheran announced it had begun enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges, sufficient to produce a nuclear weapon.
Ahmadinejad keeps Bush, Israel on their toes
Asked if Iran has begun injecting uranium gas into 3,000 centrifuges for enrichment, top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani replied, "Yes."
He did not elaborate, but it was the first confirmation the Islamic Republic has installed the larger set of centrifuges after months of saying it intends to do so. Until now, Iran was only known to have 328 centrifuges operating.
But in Jerusalem, senior officials accused Ahmadinejad of engaging in "nuclear boasting."
"He is a dangerous man," one official said, "but let's not downplay the fact that what he is trying to do is convince the Europeans that there is nothing they can do to stop him because he has already passed the nuclear threshold. He is not there."
The official said Israel knows that Ahmadinejad "does not have what he is boasting about."
Israel's assessment is that Iran has still not passed the "preliminary threshold, and that Ahmadinejad can still be stopped. Sanctions are effective, and need to be continued," the official said.
US experts were also skeptical of Iran's claims, saying they had strong doubts Teheran really had the capability to operate so many centrifuges, a highly complicated process.
"I don't believe they have 3,000 up and running in any reasonable sense," said Michael Levi, a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Iran would need 25,000 centrifuges working constantly to consistently produce fuel for a nuclear reactor, he said.
Iran's announcement brought quick condemnation from the United States and Europe. In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Iran's actions were the reason the UN Security Council and the UN nuclear watchdog "don't believe Iran's assurances that their [nuclear] program is peaceful in nature."
The move showed Iran was "definitively going in the wrong direction," said the Foreign Ministry in Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, had no immediate comment on Monday's announcement.
The UN has vowed to ratchet up sanctions as long as Iran refuses to suspend enrichment. The Security Council first imposed limited sanctions in December, then increased them slightly last month and has set a new deadline of late May.
Larijani warned that if further sanctions were imposed, Iran could review the extent of its cooperation with the UN agency under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"The European side has made the NPT ineffective by its behavior but we are not interested in a such a thing. When we face their harsh attitude, there is a possibility of making another decision under the pressure of the parliament," Larijani was quoted as saying on the state broadcasting company's Web site.
The Iranian parliament last year gave the government permission to reduce cooperation with the IAEA in the event of new sanctions.
Tensions are also high between Iran and the West following the 13-day detention of 15 British sailors and Marines by Iran.
In his speech, Ahmadinejad insisted Iran had cooperated with the UN nuclear watchdog, allowing it to inspect its facilities, but he warned, "Don't do something that will make this great nation reconsider its policies" in a reference to the threat of increased UN sanctions.
"With great honor, I declare that as of today our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale," Ahmadinejad said.
Larijani said his country was willing to offer assurances that its program is peaceful, but said the West must accept its nuclear program as a fact.
"We are ready to reach understanding with the Westerners through a corridor of real negotiations - in the current situation, in which Iran's nuclear activities have been concluded," state television quoted Larijani as saying.
"The understanding regards assuring the other party about the peacefulness of Iran's nuclear activities," he said. "But we do not give in our rights."
On April 9, 2006, Iran announced it had first enriched uranium, using an array of 164 centrifuges.
Across Iran, school bells rang on Monday to mark the "national day of nuclear energy." The government sent out text messages of congratulations to millions of mobile phone users.
In Teheran, around 200 students formed a human chain at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization while chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Britain." The students burned US and British flags.
In the enrichment process, uranium gas is
pumped into a "cascade" of thousands of centrifuges, which spin the gas at supersonic speeds to purify it. Uranium enriched to a low level, at least 3 percent, can be used as fuel, while at a far higher level, more than 90%, it can be used to build a weapon.