TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran has begun to triple its capacity to enrich uranium, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear weapons or power plants, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced yesterday on state television.
Iran has about 3,000 centrifuges operating, according to international inspectors, and Ahmadinejad said his country had begun installing 6,000 more. Arms control experts estimate that 3,000 centrifuges, operating continuously for one year, can produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb.
Iran's nuclear ambitions worry the U.S. and its allies, which accuse Iran of using a civilian atomic energy program to mask a drive for weapons of mass destruction.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled that nuclear weapons are against Islam, and the country's leaders insist their nuclear program is meant only to produce energy.
Ahmadinejad trumpeted the country's nuclear accomplishments while inspecting the enrichment facility in the central Iranian city of Natanz on the country's third annual National Day of Nuclear Technology. It marks the anniversary of the day Iran began producing enriched uranium.
Enriched uranium is produced by processing uranium gas through small, sensitive, high-speed centrifuges. It can be used to produce fuel for a power plant or, if highly concentrated, fuel for a nuclear bomb.
Kayhan, a pro-government daily newspaper, reported that Iran might unveil 600 so-called "IR-2" centrifuges that spin four times faster than the older devices. The centrifuges are already operating, Kayhan reported.
"In addition to installation of 6,000 new centrifuges," Ahmadinejad said, "there are also reports about other new achievements which will be announced tonight on television news programs."
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate late last year concluded that Iran had abandoned a clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2003.
Still, scientists consider enrichment the most challenging component to building a nuclear weapons program, and many U.S., European and Israeli officials fear Iran could quickly become a nuclear weapons power once it masters the enrichment cycle.
Iran so far has been able to produce enriched uranium of concentrations of less than 4 percent, according to international inspectors; 80 percent enrichment is required for weapons-grade material.
The U.N. Security Council imposed a third round of relatively mild economic sanctions on Iran last month over its enrichment program, a move Iran called "unlawful."
The U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna urged Iran yesterday to reconsider a 2006 offer by Europe, Russia, China and the U.S. to provide the country with nuclear technology and fuel, rather than further defying the Security Council's demand to suspend enrichment.
"This approach has not brought Iran international respect or accolade but rather increasing censure and sanction," Gregory L. Schulte said. "Today's announcement shows clear intent to even further violate Security Council requirements. Negotiation, not escalation, provides the best path to international respect and regional security."
Iran rejected the 2006 offer because it did not want to rely on an outside source for nuclear fuel and insists it has the right to produce its own, despite the Security Council resolutions ordering a halt.
Again last week, Iran turned down a package of economic incentives to abandon enrichment. Russia, which supplies fuel for the Iranian nuclear reactor in the southern city of Bushehr, also urged Iran last week to comply with U.N. and International Atomic Energy Association demands that it halt enrichment activities.
Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.