VIENNA Technicians upgrading Iran's main uranium enrichment facility have tripled their installations of high-tech machines that could be used in a nuclear weapons program to more than 600 in the last three months, diplomats said Wednesday.
They say the machines are not yet producing enriched uranium and some may be only partially installed. Still the move is the latest sign that 10 years of diplomatic efforts have failed to persuade Tehran to curb its uranium enrichment. Instead, Iran continues to increase its capacities.
The installations also suggest that Iran possesses both the technology to mass-produce centrifuges that can enrich much faster than its present machines and the ability to evade international sanctions meant to keep it from getting materials it needs to do so.
Meanwhile, Iran's president slammed "foreign presence" in the Persian Gulf, claiming it's the source of insecurity in the region.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran has "always guarded peace and security" in the Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway through which about one-fifth of the world's oil supply passes.
The Islamic Republic insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons and says it's enriching uranium only for nuclear power and other non-military applications. Iran also asserts it has a right to do so under international law.
But the United States, Israel and their allies fear Iran may use the technology to create weapons-level uranium that can be used in an atomic bomb. They base their concerns on Tehran's nuclear secrecy and suspicions they share with the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran may have worked secretly on nuclear arms.
Experts for years have suggested that the U.N. embargoes against Tehran for defying Security Council demands that it stop enrichment has left Tehran short of high-quality steel, carbon fiber and other materials needed to establish a production line of advanced centrifuges.
But the installations that began early this year and recent Iranian comments indicate the expansion has just begun.
An IAEA report in February said agency inspectors counted 180 of the advanced IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz, Tehran's main enrichment site, less than a month after Iran's Jan. 23 announcement that it would start mounting them. The report said it was unclear whether the machines were partly or completely installed.
Two diplomats who spoke to The Associated Press said while IAEA experts visiting the Iranian sites were now able to count more of the centrifuges, they remained uncertain about their operating ability because they were not permitted to get a close enough look.
One of the diplomats who spoke comes from a country critical of Iran's nuclear program while the other is considered neutral, and both spend much of their time probing Iran's nuclear activities. They demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential information about IAEA inspections.
A phone call for reaction to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief IAEA representative, was not returned. The IAEA said it would not comment on the diplomats' report.
The February IAEA report also said the number of other advanced centrifuge models being tested at an R&D site at Natanz separate from its enrichment plant had substantially increased to more than 300 as of February.
Iranian nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi was quoted Sunday by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying that more than 3,000 high-tech centrifuges have already been produced and will soon phase out the more than 12,000 older-generation enriching machines at Natanz.