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Iran touts nuclear gains

TEHRAN, Iran – Iran claimed Sunday that it had reached its goal of running 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, a much higher number than recently estimated by the United Nations’ atomic agency. If true, the accomplishment might allow Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb within a year, military experts have calculated.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by state television as saying that despite economic sanctions by the United Nations, his country had “taken another step in the nuclear progress and launched more than 3,000 centrifuge machines.”

It could not be independently verified whether Iran, which the West has often accused of exaggerating its nuclear capabilities for domestic propaganda, had reached its long-sought objective.

Centrifuges spin at high rates of speed to enrich uranium and are critical to generating electricity or building a nuclear bomb.

A report released last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that Tehran had far less than 3,000 centrifuges operating. It found that the country’s plant at Natanz was running 1,968 centrifuges, a 50 percent increase over the number it had on line in April. However, the report says Iran has enriched uranium only to 3.7 percent, well below the 90 percent needed for weapons-grade material.

Iran has faced economic sanctions and three U.N. resolutions for refusing to cooperate with IAEA inspectors and curtail its nuclear ambitions. A fourth round of sanctions is possible when the U.N. Security Council meets in September.

The IAEA’s recent report suggested that Tehran may have actually slowed its nuclear program. It found that Iran was making progress on cooperating with the West, but had yet to convince inspectors of the exact aim of its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad’s announcement, carried by state news agencies, came as moderates within the government have criticized hard-liners for not being more compliant with U.N. demands. In comments last week, President Bush said Iran’s nuclear agenda would put the Middle East under the shadow of “nuclear holocaust.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Hussiani, responded to the charge Sunday: “What Mr. Bush said about the danger of nuclear holocaust in the region is baseless and, in fact, applies to the U.S. as the Americans were the first in (carrying out) a nuclear holocaust in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”