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Iran Anticipates Uranium Refinement Expansion: Atomic Chief

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi, shown in September, has said Tehran would "most likely" activate a significant number of additional uranium enrichment centrifuges in coming months (AP Photo/Ronald Zak). Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi, shown in September, has said Tehran would "most likely" activate a significant number of additional uranium enrichment centrifuges in coming months (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

A top Iranian atomic official has said his country is likely within months to activate a significant amount of additional uranium refinement machinery, but he did not specify if Tehran would bolster production of higher-purity atomic material suited for faster conversion into bomb fuel, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

Since 2010, Washington and numerous European governments have ramped up economic penalties aimed at pressuring the Persian Gulf regional power to address suspicions that its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program is geared toward development of a nuclear-weapon capability.

"Despite the sanctions, most likely this year we will have a substantial growth in centrifuge machines and we will continue (uranium) enrichment with intensity," Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi said in comments reported on Wednesday by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. The nation begins its next calendar year in March.

Tehran has bolstered its ability to refine uranium to 20 percent and completed deployment of enrichment centrifuges at its underground bunker complex near Qum, the International Atomic Energy Agency stated in a November safeguards report. Iran contends the 20 percent material would fuel a medical reactor; Washington and other capitals, though, worry the substance could enable Tehran to more quickly produce bomb fuel with an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent.

Iran moved earlier this year to convert a portion of its 20 percent uranium into medical reactor fuel, delaying the point at which it would amass enough of the material for a bomb. Tehran halted the conversion roughly two months ago and has continued manufacturing higher-purity uranium, but certain Western envoys and experts suggested the suspension was temporary and a result of the time required for preparing the medical material, Reuters reported separately.

One-time U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said Tehran's halt in medical fuel production appeared to result from "a bottleneck" in the production process.

"It is alarming because it brings the 20 percent stockpile closer to a weapons amount," Fitzpatrick said. "But it is not alarming in the sense that this was a strategic decision on Iran's part."

He added: "I think Iran has been trying to calibrate its advances, not necessarily to lower tension, but to try to manage the crisis."

The nation presently possesses 298 pounds of the substance, the IAEA report indicates; Israel has suggested it could employ armed force to prevent Tehran from amassing the 529 pounds of material needed for a weapon.

Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said Iran's medical reactor fuel production "is not an industrial manufacturing process, but rather a pilot scale operation."

"To turn all the material in [Iran's Isfahan uranium conversion facility] to fuel plates will take more than year. Before doing so, they also want to see the performance of the plates," Heinonen said.

One intelligence insider expressed openness to the possibility that a logistics issue had prompted the conversion pause. Still, Tehran might have halted the operation as a "test balloon" to gauge the reaction of Western governments.

Increases in Iran's stockpile of higher-enriched uranium and in the maximum output of its Qum facility are sources of worry over the nation's atomic ambitions, Western envoys and other observers said. The developments could also pose obstacles in an anticipated multilateral bid to negotiate an atomic compromise, according to Reuters.

"By converting (20 percent uranium) into something else, it reduces the tension, but in no way does it resolve the issue as a whole. They continue to enrich,"an international relations insider said.

Meanwhile, Abbasi said Iran was experiencing "no problems" at its Arak heavy-water reactor facility. The U.N. nuclear watchdog indicated Tehran had delayed until 2014 the scheduled launch of the site, which could generate plutonium suited for use in nuclear weapons.

"Only because of security considerations, we are moving with caution, since enemy intends to harm this reactor," he said in comments reported by the Associated Press. "All the equipment needed to operate this reactor has been purchased."

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday reaffirmed its denial of news assertions on plans for direct discussions with the United States.

“As long as U.S. sticks to past policies, there will be no need for negotiations," Iran's Press TV quoted spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying. "When fair conditions for talks are provided, we will welcome (negotiations), but we have not yet observed any fundamental change (in U.S. behavior)."

Elsewhere, a number of U.S. lawmakers and congressional staffers said the Senate could soon weigh a proposal for further punitive measures against Tehran, Reuters reported.

A Greek energy firm indicated it was looking into the supplier of materials on a Tanzanian-flagged petroleum transport ship controlled by Iran, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

Tehran on Wednesday introduced three new naval vessels in an event near the Strait of Hormuz, the Washington Post reported. Iranian lawmakers and officials have previously indicated that blocking access to the strait could be one response to heightened sanctions against their nation.

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