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Iran Says Its Nuclear Program Reached Key Target

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iranian scientists now have 3,000 gas centrifuges working to enrich uranium. Months ago, Iran laid out that number as a benchmark that its nuclear program aimed to achieve by the end of the year. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Speaking in a nationally televised address, President Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear fuel production program is "irreversible."

He said Iran disregarded previous threats from the West over its nuclear activities, and carried on with its work. Now, he said, "We have 3,000 centrifuges."

In Washington, the U.S. State Department would not confirm the accuracy of the statement, but said it shows Iran continues to defy the international community.

Iranian officials in the past have claimed to have three-thousand centrifuges installed at its nuclear facility in Natanz, and Mr. Ahmadinejad made a similar statement in September. But in this remark, he appears to be indicating that all 3,000 are running, which would be the benchmark the nuclear program had aimed to achieve by the end of the year.

Uranium gas is enriched in cascades of centrifuges linked together. The result can be low-grade fuel used for generating electricity, or higher-grade fuel appropriate for nuclear weapons. The United States and Europe believe Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, but Iran insists that it only wants to create peaceful nuclear energy.

U.S. nuclear proliferation experts say 3,000 centrifuges properly linked could theoretically produce enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb in about a year. But analysts in the field say there has so far been little evidence that all of Iran's centrifuges are being run together.

Sharon Squassoni is a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington.

"But you have to keep in mind, this plant is not up and running yet, it's not fully operational," said Sharon Squassoni. "And so there I think you have to take with a grain of salt these latest remarks by President Ahmadinejad."

In the November issue of the US-based publication Arms Control Today, former UN weapons inspector David Albright and former State Department official Jacqueline Shire wrote that "it appears Iran's uranium-enrichment program still has a way to go." They said, "Iran has not yet demonstrated competency at enriching uranium," but it is "clearly on the road toward doing so."

The Iranian leader's comments come as the International Atomic Energy Agency is preparing to issue a new report later this month on Iran's cooperation on outstanding questions over its nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council is also scheduled to discuss imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran if it is judged noncompliant.

The Security Council has asked Iran to stop all enrichment activity. But President Ahmadinejad said Iran does not care about sanctions.

He said, "The Iranian nation will not retreat one iota from any of its rights, especially its nuclear rights."

The Carnegie Institute's Squassoni says it is important to consider the political context of Mr. Ahmadinejad's remarks.

"To some, it might seem that this latest announcement about Iran's centrifuge capability is really counterproductive to the IAEA giving Iran a clean bill of health," said Squassoni. "It seems a very defiant action."

She said that apparent defiance may be a negotiating tactic.

"Basically I think what [Mr.] Ahmadinejad would like people to conclude is, 'well, it's too late, so stop asking Iran to halt enrichment and get on with whatever other negotiations are necessary,'" she said. "They want it to be a fait accompli. And that's why I think there have been these pronouncements, which in the past have turned out not to be true in terms of their capability. But it is clear that in the last year they've been proceeding with more success at least in installing centrifuges in the plant."

Squassoni says from a technical perspective, the number of centrifuges Iran has installed is irrelevant, and what matters is developing the ability to run them continuously. But she says the often-mentioned number of 3,000 may have some political significance in Iran's negotiations with the IAEA.