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Iran loading homemade nuclear fuel rods, firing up new centrifuges

Iran says it now has the next generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium for its nuclear program. But US experts are skeptical of Iran's claims.

By Parisa HafeziReuters / February 15, 2012

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, in 2007.

(AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

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Tehran

Iran trumpeted advances in nuclear technology on Wednesday, citing new uranium enrichment centrifuges and domestically made reactor fuel, in a move abetting a drift towards confrontation with the West over its disputed atomic ambitions.

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The announcement underlined Iranian determination to pursue a nuclear program its Islamic clerical rulers see as a pillar of power, protection and prestige despite Western sanctions that are inflicting increasing damage on Iran's oil-based economy.

Russia responded to the announcement by expressing concern about Iran's nuclear program progress but sees no hard evidence of military aims, the Interfax news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov

 On Wednesday, Iran also handed a letter to the European Union's foreign policy chief that said it is ready to resume nuclear talks with major powers to discuss the country's disputed nuclear programme, Iran's Arabic language Al Alam television reported.

Iran has been resorting to barter to import basic staples as sanctions, imposed over its pursuit of nuclear activity seen in the West as geared to developing atomic bombs, have spread to block its oil exports and central bank financing of trade.

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Tehran has for some years been developing and testing new generations of centrifuges to replace an outdated, breakdown-prone model. In January it said it had successfully manufactured and tested its own fuel rods for use in nuclear power plants.

The aim of its announcements on Wednesday was to show that international sanctions are failing to stop it making progress in nuclear know-how despite trade embargoes and to strengthen its hand in any renewed negotiations with six world powers.

"The fourth generation of domestically made centrifuges have a higher speed and production capacity ... It will be unveiled on Wednesday," state television said, without giving a source.

It was the latest display of Iran thumbing its nose at a series of U.N. resolutions demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment and open up to U.N. nuclear inspectors.

Last year, Iran installed two newer models for large scale testing at a research site near the central town of Natanz. But it remains unclear whether Tehran, subject to increasingly strict trade sanctions, has the means and components to make the more sophisticated machines in industrial quantity.

If Iran eventually succeeded in introducing modern centrifuges for production, it could significantly shorten the time needed to stockpile enriched uranium, which can generate electricity or, if refined much more, nuclear explosions.

Tehran has worked for several years to perfect faster, more reliable centrifuge machines than the 1970s-vintage P-1 model it now uses to refine uranium.

Western analysts were skeptical of the proclaimed advances.

"We have seen this before. We have seen these announcements and these grand unveilings and it turns out that there was less there than meets the eye. I suspect this is the same case," said Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

NO CHANGE OF COURSE

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy and sanctions are ultimately judged futile in reining in Tehran's nuclear activity.

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