Iran claims new, advanced nuclear centrifuges

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility
In this April 8, 2008 photo released by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles south of the capital, Tehran, Iran.
AP Photo/Iranian President's Office
Updated at 9:11 a.m. ET

Iran boasted a new "generation" of nuclear centrifuges that will allow the nation to enrich uranium at a faster pace, CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reported on "CBS This Morning" Wednesday.

A semiofficial Iranian news outlet reported that the country started using new, fourth-generation domestically made centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment site. Iran revealed several other nuclear advances, including the production of its first domestically engineered fuel rods, or plates, for the nuclear research reactor in Tehran.

Western experts Wednesday morning cast doubt on Iran's claims that its centrifuges have reached the fourth-generation capabilities, saying that the Iranians have been struggling to reach second- or third-generation centrifuges. At any rate, the Iranians claim the centrifuges have a higher speed and production capacity. But Iran has exaggerated its nuclear capabilities before.

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CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate told Charlie Rose that Iran has good reason for issuing continuous announcements on its nuclear program in the face of pressure from the international community.

(Watch at left)

"They want to signal clearly to the world that they are continuing to march toward a nuclear capability," said Zarate. "This is an important message not just externally for the Iranian regime but also internally, Charlie. Remember that this is a unifying issue for many in Iran and so declaring a continued march in the face of sabotage and sanctions becomes an important message for the Iranian regime itself."

Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told CBS News that the Iranians have been talking for years about a third generation of centrifuges, but there is little tangible evidence to suggest they have actually even progressed to that stage - let alone a functional fourth generation.

"It's probably a lot of hyperbole," Fitzpatrick said of Wednesday's announcement. He has not heard of a fourth-generation centrifuge in Iran and doubts one even exists there.

Asked whether Iran actually has the capacity to "break out" a nuclear weapons program from its current enrichment and reactor facilities, he said that even if the regime ignored Western threats and decided to enrich uranium to the weapons-grade level - 80 percent or higher - it would still take more than a year to cobble together a crude nuclear weapon.

While the production of the uranium fuel rods is a significant milestone for Iran, the material involved is only viable for use in creating medical radioactive isotopes and indicates no advances in a clandestine weapons program that the U.S. and its allies insist Iran is pursuing.

Fitzpatrick said the locally produced rods are "clearly for producing isotopes for medical purposes; it's nothing to do with nuclear weapons."

The new centrifuges, however, will increase the Iranian's capability to quickly stockpile low-enriched uranium.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports the centrifuges essentially perform the same task as the older ones, but as they are faster, they will increase the size of Iran's 3- and 20-percent enriched uranium stock - something Iran can't easily justify as a necessity for its domestic power program or medical isotopes.

It is thought that the highest level of enrichment being conducted by the Iranians is 20 percent at the Tehran research reactor. This falls well short of the 80 or 90 percent enrichment that is necessary to create an atomic bomb.

Fitzpatrick said Iran's production of 20 percent uranium certainly "gets it closer" to being able to produce weapons grade uranium but that they are by no means near this objective.

Israel, however, is likely to hold up the Iranian advances as further evidence for its argument that Iran could secretly build a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time.

On Wednesday, as the Iranian developments were announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of destabilizing the world, and said its aggression must be halted.

Iran's announcement comes as representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, prepare to travel to Iran next week, forcing the question of whether negotiations will be able to break an international stalemate or escalate tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Iran has still not granted the International Atomic Energy Agency the access that they want," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk, "and the nuclear announcement by the government does not reassure the inspectors."

Above, watch Charlie D'Agata break down Iran's latest claims