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Report on uranium work in Iran expected


PARIS -- International nuclear inspectors are expected to report next week that Iran has started producing enriched uranium on a very small scale, indicating that it is striving to solve technological problems in its nuclear program, European officials said yesterday.

A month after Iran defied Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency and said it would restart what it termed research on enrichment, it has put 10 centrifuges into operation at the vast uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, the officials said.

But it would take more than a thousand machines a year to produce enough material for one weapon, and it is unclear how long it will take Iran to work out the problems of tying those machines into a "cascade" that could produce bomb-grade fuel.

U.S. and European officials said they viewed Iran's action as largely a political statement, an effort, in the words of a senior U.S. official, "to get something in operation in hopes that the world will just get used to it."

At a meeting of the IAEA board March 6, Bush administration officials plan to point to the move as evidence that Iran is moving as fast as it can to master the fuel cycle. That would yield the technical knowledge, but not necessarily the capability, to produce highly enriched uranium for a weapon.

The 10 centrifuges had been sealed as part of a voluntary agreement in November 2004 between Iran and the Europeans that froze Iran's nuclear enrichment-related activities.

That agreement fell apart last month.

Iran's efforts to reconstitute its operation are at an early stage. The Institute for Science and International Security, which monitors Iran, said Thursday that "Iran still needs to repair and operate its first 164-machine test cascade at the Natanz pilot plant" and that it has to overcome considerable hurdles.

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