NATANZ, Iran – Iran announced a dramatic expansion of uranium enrichment Monday, saying it has begun operating 3,000 centrifuges – nearly 10 times the previously known number – in defiance of U.N. demands it halt its nuclear program or face increased sanctions.
U.S. experts say 3,000 centrifuges are in theory enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps within a year.
But they doubted Iran really had so many up and running, a difficult technical feat given the country’s spotty success with a much smaller number.
Instead, the announcement may aim to increase support at home amid growing criticism of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to boost Iran’s hand with the West by presenting its program as established, said Michael Levi, a nonproliferation expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“From a political perspective, it’s more important to have (3,000 centrifuges) in place than to have them run properly,” Levi told The Associated Press. “We have an unfortunate habit to take Iran at its word when they make scary announcements.”
The White House and Europe criticized the latest announcement.
“Iran continues to defy the international community and further isolate itself by expanding its nuclear program, rather than suspending uranium enrichment,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Iran is known to have had 328 centrifuges operating at its Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran.
For months, it has been saying it plans to launch an expanded program of 3,000, likely to be set up in a large underground area at Natanz to protect them from air strikes.
“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 in a speech during a ceremony at Natanz marking the one-year anniversary of the first successful enrichment of uranium there.
His comments suggested Iran was able to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear reactor consistently, but he did not announce the start of the 3,000 centrifuges.
Asked by reporters at the ceremony if Iran has begun injecting uranium gas into 3,000 centrifuges for enrichment, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani replied, “Yes.” He did not say specifically whether all were working.
In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into centrifuges, which spin and purify the gas.