TEHRAN // Iran is running more than 5,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, its president was quoted as saying today, suggesting continued expansion of a nuclear programme the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. "Today, we have more than 5,000 active centrifuges," state television quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying. The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in May that Tehran had 3,500 uranium enrichment centrifuges working at its Natanz facility in central Iran.
The UN Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment work that can have both civilian and military uses. The Islamic Republic, the world's fourth-largest crude producer, says its nuclear activities are aimed solely at generating electricity so that it can sell more oil and gas. Iran and six world powers, represented by the European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, held a meeting in Geneva on July 19 to discuss the country's disputed nuclear ambitions.
Afterwards, Western officials said Iran had two weeks to reply to an offer of a halt to new steps towards more UN sanctions if Iran froze the expansion of its nuclear work. Russia, among the six, has said it opposes artificial deadlines. Iranian officials have so far ruled out both a freeze to get preliminary discussions going and a demand that Iran eventually suspend its nuclear programme to start formal talks on a package of economic and other incentives proposed by the six powers.
Tehran says it is ready for negotiations but will not accept any pre-conditions or threats. "Iran does not negotiate with anyone over its obvious nuclear right," Mr Ahmadinejad said in the northeastern town of Mashhad. "The government has decided to end the era of the dominance of the Westerners once and for all." Iran launched 3,000 centrifuges, a basis for industrial scale enrichment, at Natanz in central Iran in 2007. But they are the 1970s-vintage P1 design, prone to breakdown.
It said in April it had started installing 6,000 new centrifuges at Natanz and that it had also begun testing an advanced centrifuge speeding up work that could give it the means to make atom bombs if it chooses. Iran says it aims eventually to have 50,000 centrifuges to produce fuel for a planned network of power plants. Enriched uranium can also provide material for bombs if more highly refined.
The US has warned Iran that it will face more sanctions if it fails to meet the two-week deadline. Western diplomats say Iran's failure to respond clearly to the offer made by the six powers the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China is an effort to buy time. *Reuters