'We can speed up enrichment 5-fold'

Ahmadinejad's claim follows installation of 6,000 new centrifuges; Rice: Iran faces continued isolation.

Ahmadinijad waving (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinijad waving
(photo credit: AP [file])
Iran has for the first time tested an improved centrifuge that works five times faster than the current version, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday evening, following his earlier announcement that Iran had begun installing 6,000 new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. Ahmadinejad toured the Natanz facility in ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the day Iran first enriched uranium in 2006. On that day, "Iran stepped into a path that will put the country in a more deserving position in the world," Ahmadinejad said, according to state-run television. "The president announced the start of the phase of installing 6,000 new centrifuges in Natanz," state television reported. Later in a nationally televised speech, he announced the testing of the new, more effective centrifuge. Ahmadinejad said a "new machine was put to test" that is smaller but five times more efficient than the P-1 centrifuges that are currently in operation at Natanz. He provided no further details on the new device or on how many Iran had. He called the development a "breakthrough" and the "beginning of a speedy trend to eliminate the big powers" dominance in nuclear energy. The Iranian president lauded Iran's achieved proficiency in the cycle of nuclear fuel despite UN sanctions and pressures imposed by the world's big powers. The announcement of the installation of the new centrifuges, which Western officials said could not be immediately confirmed, represented a major bid to expand enrichment, a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead. Iran currently operates 3,000 centrifuges at its underground nuclear facility in Natanz. A diplomat following Iran's nuclear program at the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said Ahmadinejad's statement appeared to be "a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing." "It seems to be little more than a publicity stunt," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized comment publicly. But Western nations appeared divided on how to respond. France called for UN sanctions already imposed on Iran to be "reinforced." But Russia, an ally of Iran, said the West should instead put forward a new package of economic incentives aimed at persuading Teheran to halt enrichment. Teheran rejected one such European package last week. A source in the Prime Minister's Office responded by calling on the world to take whatever steps were necessary to prevent the nuclearization of Iran. "Unfortunately the reckless language of the Iranian leadership is matched by their reckless behavior," the source said. "The international community must act today. Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Iran to accept a deal and halt enrichment. "Iran faces continued isolation in the international community because it will not take a reasonable offer from the international community to have another way," she said in Washington. "The six parties have put forward, I think, a very generous set of incentives should Iran agree to live up to the obligations that any state has when a Security Council resolution is passed." Gregory Schulte, the US representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tuesday's announcement by Iran "reflects the Iranian leadership's continuing violation of international obligations and refusal to address international concerns." "This approach has not brought Iran international respect or accolade, but rather increasing censure and sanction," he said in a written statement. The UN has passed three sets of sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Teheran insists its nuclear program is focused on the peaceful production of energy, not the development of weapons as claimed by the US and many of its allies. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the announcement of new centrifuges "dangerous" and said UN sanctions should be increased. "If that continues, we must reinforce sanctions, but we also must continue dialogue," Kouchner told a news conference in Paris. "I fear that we will have to continue on the road toward sanctions if we do not encounter responses from the Iranians." But Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said there was no need for new sanctions. Instead, he told Ekho Moskvy radio that diplomats from the US, Russia, China, Britain and France, along with Germany, would offer Iran new economic, energy and security incentives to halt uranium enrichment. "We must focus on drafting new positive proposals now," Lavrov said. He also reaffirmed Moscow's strong warning opposing the use of force against Iran, saying that it would exacerbate the crisis in the Middle East and make a peace settlement impossible. "A negotiated settlement is the only possibility," Lavrov said. "Any attempt to use force will trigger a series of unsustainable crises in the Middle East." Britain's Foreign Office said Iran had "chosen to ignore the will of the international community," accusing Teheran of "making no effort to restore international confidence in its intentions." The workhorse of Iran's enrichment program is the P-1 centrifuge, which is run in cascades of 164 machines. But Iranian officials confirmed in February that they had started using the IR-2 centrifuge, which can churn out enriched uranium at more than double the rate. Iranian state television didn't say if the installation of the 6,000 new centrifuges included the older P-1 or the advanced IR-2 centrifuges. A total of 3,000 centrifuges is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could produce enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons. Iran says it plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that ultimately will involve 54,000 centrifuges.