Last updated: February 26. 2013 12:24AM - 179 Views

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Flock Flock In a disheartening signal to world powers at upcoming Iran talks, Tehran has started installing high-tech machines at its main uranium enrichment site that are capable of accelerating production of reactor fuel and — with further upgrading — the core of nuclear warheads, diplomats said Wednesday.

Iran already announced last week that it had begun mounting the new enriching centrifuges, but one diplomat said at the time that the announcement was premature with only a “small number” on site and not yet installed.

Diplomats told The Associated Press on Wednesday, however, that installation was now well on its way, with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency seeing close to 100 or more machines mounted when they toured the site a few days ago. Depending on experts’ estimates, the new-generation centrifuges can enrich uranium three to five times faster than Iran’s present working model.

The Islamic Republic insists it is not working on a nuclear weapons program, but rather is enriching uranium only to make reactor fuel and for scientific and medical purposes — as allowed by international law.

But many nations are suspicious because Iran went underground after failing to get international help for its uranium enrichment program in the 1980s, working secretly until its activities were revealed a decade ago. More recent proposals for international shipments of reactor fuel in exchange for Iranian enrichment concessions have foundered, with each side blaming the other.

In first revealing plans to update last month, Iran indicated that It could add more than 3,000 of the new-generation centrifuges to the more than 10,000 older models it has at Natanz turning out enriched uranium at grades lower than at Fordo. The lower the grade, the harder it would be to turn into weapons-grade material.

Olli Heinonen, the former IAEA deputy director general in charge of Iran, told the AP last week that Iran could install 3,000 or more of the high-tech centrifuges at Natanz within six to nine months, assuming that Tehran had the material to make the machines.

Iran, in its dealings both with the six powers and the IAEA, has continually acted as if it were in the position of strength. On Saturday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, asserted that his country was not seeking nuclear weapons, but that if Tehran intended to build them, “the U.S. could in no way stop the Iranian nation.”

David Albright, whose Institute for Science and International Security is a source for the U.S. government on proliferation issues, said Iran’s hopes that the new centrifuges could strengthen its hand at the Kazakhstan talks could backfire.

“Given the low expectations for negotiations during the next several months, Iran risks giving the impression to the West that it is racing to the bomb rather than strengthening its negotiating position,” he said Wednesday.

But analyst Yousaf Butt, professor and scientist-in-residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said that — with Iran legally entitled to enrich —the six powers first “should consider rolling back some sanctions” if they want Iran to respond.

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