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Iran Could Ramp up Uranium Enrichment Within Days, Diplomats Say

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in 2008. Informed diplomats said Iran appears capable of quickly doubling the number of operational enrichment centrifuges at another site, which would allow it to produce enough uranium for a nuclear weapon in about three months (AP Photo). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in 2008. Informed diplomats said Iran appears capable of quickly doubling the number of operational enrichment centrifuges at another site, which would allow it to produce enough uranium for a nuclear weapon in about three months (AP Photo).

Iran would need only a few days to double the number of centrifuges producing higher-enriched uranium at a facility hardened against attack, an informed envoy told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Activating close to 700 additional devices, on top of a similar number of centrifuges that are already operating, would enable the nation to produce sufficient amounts of uranium for a nuclear weapon in slightly more than 90 days, according to the report.

Iran says it is enriching uranium to 20 percent for a medical research reactor in Tehran. The United States and other nations worry that the current work at the plant near Qum is a key step toward Iranian preparation of weapon-grade uranium, which has an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent.

A rapid ramping up at Qum would be of particular concern to Israel, where officials in recent weeks have said they did not expect Iran to reach the "red line" in nuclear progress before spring or summer of next year. Breaching that line could invite Israeli military action, the nation's leaders have threatened.

Only one of three envoys from International Atomic Energy Agency nations cited the 700 figure for new operational centrifuges. The other two, though, did say that Iran in recent months had prepared a notable quantity of centrifuges at Qum to start operations within a matter of days if demanded.

Iran would need a number of years to actually produce a viable nuclear weapon, according to issue analysts. The nation says its atomic program has no military component.

Close to 2,800 centrifuges are believed to be in place at the subterranean enrichment plant, diplomats say. That would be the site's full complement; only 700 devices are believed to be active at present.

The International Atomic Energy Agency in August said that Iran had converted a significant amount of higher-enriched uranium into a form that could not easily be repurposed for nuclear weapons. However, a major uptick in operational centrifuges could enable the nation to replenish that amount and produce the roughly 300 pounds required for a single weapon.

Iran "should be in a position to produce enough (material) for two or three warheads" by summer 2012, if it were to move forward with a twofold boost in centrifuge operations in coming weeks, according to former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen.

It remains to be seen whether Iran has structurally prepared the Qum site for operating the additional centrifuges or whether the devices are intended for production of 20 percent-enriched uranium, Reuters reported. Material intended for atomic power plants, such as Iran's Bushehr facility, requires an enrichment level of only 3.5 percent.

Still, Iran "should be able to (increase production) within a few weeks," according to an envoy with an IAEA nation.

Agency representatives are scheduled to meet with Iranian officials on Dec. 13 in hopes of reaching agreement on a plan for the IAEA probe of the nation's nuclear work.

An IAEA safeguards report issued on Friday backs up the diplomats' comments regarding Iran's readiness to go from 700 to 1,400 active centrifuges at the Qum plant, news agencies reported.

"They can be started any day. They are ready," an informed high-level envoy told Reuters.

The document says that roughly 512 pounds of higher-enriched uranium has been produced in Iran dating to 2010, Reuters reported. That is nearly 95 pounds more than identified in the organization's August report.

Of the total amount, more than 211 pounds has been changed for use at the Tehran Research Reactor.

The agency also cited "extensive activities" at Iran's Parchin armed forces installation, a clear reference to alleged efforts by the government to eliminate potential proof that the site has housed nuclear weapon-relevant experiments.

The report says It is "necessary to have access to this location without further delay." Several rounds of talks this year have failed to open the door to such a visit.

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