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Nuke fast track? Iran plans to up uranium-enrichment capacity

In a letter to the UN's nuclear watchdog, Tehran announced it was planning to replace its centrifuges, which experts worry could significantly speed up development of a nuclear weapon.

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"We along with the other UN Security Council members have called upon the Iranians to freeze enrichment work during negotiations," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

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Western states have intensified the sanctions pressure on Iran over the past year, targeting its lifeline oil sector. This has inflicted increasing damage to Iran's economy but its clerical leadership is showing no sign of backing down.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, has hinted at possible military action against Iran if sanctions and diplomacy fail to resolve the nuclear stand-off.

A 'game changer'?

Iran asserts a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and has repeatedly refused to halt the work, a stance underlined anew by its new centrifuge plans. Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of uranium's fissile isotope.

Iran said it would use the new model at a unit in Natanz, where it is now refining uranium to a fissile concentration of up to five percent, according to the IAEA's communication.

The IAEA "received a letter from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) dated 23 January 2013 informing the Agency that 'centrifuge machines type IR2m will be used in Unit A-22' at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz," it said.

The IAEA said it had asked Iran, in a letter earlier this week, to provide technical and other information about the plans. A unit can house more than 3,000 centrifuges.

About 10,400 IR-1 centrifuges were installed at Natanz late last year, an IAEA report said in November, but diplomats in the Austrian capital said they expected a jump in that figure in the next update from the UN agency due around February 22.

The nuclear watchdog, whose mission it is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, regularly inspects Natanz and other, declared Iranian nuclear sites.

Nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank said that employing more efficient centrifuges at Natanz could be "a most unfortunate game changer," depending on how many there were.

"Using the IR-2m in large numbers would enable Iran to enrich uranium much faster," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Iran says it refines uranium to power a planned network of nuclear energy plants. But just one of these plants would take many years to complete, raising many questions abroad about the motivations of a major oil and gas producer speeding up its accumulation of enriched uranium and, since early 2010, refining to a level beyond the 5 percent suitable for civilian energy.

The part of Iran's enrichment work that most worries Western diplomats – to a fissile purity of 20 percent – is carried out at the Fordow underground facility near the town of Qom.

This higher level of enrichment represents a significant step closer to weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it needs 20 percent uranium to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran. So far, all the centrifuges deployed there are the old model.

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