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U.N. officials: Iran plans to start installing thousands of centrifuges next month
DAVOS, Switzerland -- Iran plans to begin work next month on an underground uranium enrichment facility, as part of a plan to create a network of tens of thousands of machines turning out material that could be used to make nuclear arms, U.N. officials said Friday.
The officials' comments were the first concrete confirmation that work on the facility would begin in February. A senior U.S. State Department official warned the move would be a "major miscalculation" by Iran.
"If Iran takes this step, it is going to confront universal international opposition," said undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns. "If they think they can get away with 3,000 centrifuges without another Security Council resolution and additional international pressure, then they are very badly mistaken."
Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meanwhile, accused the United States. of acting like a bully, with the ultimate aim of forcing Iran to "abandon nuclear energy." In a sermon in Tehran, he said a U.S. military buildup in the Gulf and the announcement that U.S. forces would seek to capture or kill Iranian agents in Iraq were aimed Iranian nuclear programs.
"Today our enemies have come with several issues against us while having supporters in the world communities," Rafsanjani told worshippers Friday. "This is bullying."
Also Friday, the Iranian government said it would bar all U.N. inspectors from countries that voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution last month that imposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. Iran said it had rejected 38 names from a list of inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iranian officials have said repeatedly that work would start soon on the uranium enrichment facility at its Natanz underground plant. There had been speculation the leadership might launch the project next month to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that brought the clerical leadership to power.
But the timing of the work may in part be a gesture of defiance. The Security Council's 60-day deadline for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment runs out next month, paving the way for further sanctions.
"I understand that they are going to announce that they are going to build up their 3,000 centrifuge facility ... sometime next month," IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters at the World Economic Forum.
U.N. officials, who demanded anonymity because the information was confidential, emphasized that Iran had not officially announced plans to embark on the assembly of what will initially be 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz. But they said senior officials have informally told the IAEA that the work would begin next month.
Iran ultimately plans to expand its program to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium gas into enriched material.
Iran says it aims to produce nuclear fuel to generate electricity. But if Iran chose, it could use the massive array of centrifuges to make enough weapons-grade material for dozens of nuclear warheads a year.
Diplomats briefed on the IAEA's findings said this month that the Iranians recently finished pre-assembly work at the Natanz facility, which is underground as protection against attack.
In enrichment plants, centrifuges are linked in what are called cascades. For now, the only known assembled centrifuge cascades in Iran are above ground at Natanz, consisting of two linked chains of 164 machines each and two smaller setups.
The two larger cascades have been running only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium, while the smaller assemblies have been underground "dry testing" since November, IAEA inspectors have reported.
A U.N. official cautioned against assuming that the new work at Natanz would result in thousands of centrifuges spinning anytime soon, suggesting Tehran might do nothing more than put together another 164-machine cascade underground.
A diplomat with access to much of what is known about Iran's enrichment program said Tehran may not be technologically advanced enough to put together thousands of centrifuges in series -- work that would take months even for more developed countries. Additionally, he said, Iran might be "drawing a new line in the sand" by embarking on -- and then pausing -- its underground assembly work.
Even a symbolic start of underground installations at Natanz would sharply escalate the conflict between Tehran and world powers over its nuclear program.
In another example of Tehran's hardball tactics, diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, said Iran had demanded the removal of a senior official linked to agency inspections of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran barred the official, Chris Charlier, from visiting last year.
ElBaradei suggested Thursday that one way to defuse tensions would be a "simultaneous time-out" -- with Iran suspending enrichment activities and the Security Council suspending sanctions so the matter could "go to the negotiating table."
In an indirect slap at the U.S. and Israel, ElBaradei also said anyone advocating military action against Tehran was "bonkers," because such a move would force Iran "to go underground."
Israel and the United States have both suggested a strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities was not off the table.