BIRJAND, Iran – Iran has reached a milestone in its nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday, suggesting that the country now has 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges fully operating.
“We have now reached 3,000 machines,” Ahmadinejad told thousands of Iranians gathered in Birjand, in eastern Iran, in a show of defiance of international demands to halt the program that the U.S. and its allies say masks the country’s nuclear arms efforts.
Ahmadinejad has in the past claimed that Iran had succeeded in installing the 3,000 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.
But Wednesday’s claim appeared to go further, with Ahmadinejad’s words and the tone and setting of his Wednesday speech suggesting he meant all 3,000 were running.
An official with knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities said that Iran does now have nearly 3,000 centrifuges operating at Natanz. But that official said it would take years for all the centrifuges to run smoothly without frequent breakdowns.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive program.
The number 3,000 is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons, should Iran chose to go the route.
Experts have estimated Iran would need only 1,500 centrifuges to produce one such warhead.
In Washington, the State Department could not confirm the accuracy of Ahmadinejad’s statement but said it was proof that that Iran was continuing to defy international demands.
“Generally, the Iranians have followed through on doing what they said they were going to do,” spokesman Sean McCormack said. “That isn’t to say that I am aware that they have reached the 3,000 centrifuge mark, but they have been very consistent in pushing toward the goals they have laid out for themselves.
“Whether it is 2,000 or 2,500 or 3,000 or 1,000 centrifuges, the irrefutable fact is that they are continuing to defy the international community, that they have refused the offers of negotiations and cooperation offered them,” McCormack said.
A recent report by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei that had put the number of centrifuges working in Natanz at close to 2,000, with another 650 being tested.
Officials from the Vienna-based agency could not be reached for immediate comment Wednesday.
Uranium gas, spun in linked centrifuges, can result in either low-enriched fuel suitable to generate power in a nuclear reactor, or the weapons-grade material that forms the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Tehran denies that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for weapons’ development, insisting it is geared toward generating electricity.
Iran says it plans to expand its enrichment program to up to 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz in central Iran, and is fully within its rights to pursue the enrichment to produce fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Two rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to halt the enrichment.
Ahmadinejad on Wednesday reiterated his rejection of any suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities, or even a compromise over how Tehran will proceed beyond the 3,000 centrifuges.
“The world must know that this nation will not give up one iota of its nuclear rights,” he said. “If they think they can get concessions from this nation, they are badly mistaken.”