TEHRAN - Iran is now running 5,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, a senior official said on Wednesday, signaling an expansion of work the West fears is aimed at making nuclear weapons.
The comments by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, made clear once again that the Islamic Republic has no intention of bowing to Western pressure to halt or freeze its disputed nuclear program.
They also underlined the challenge facing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who after his election victory this month called for an international effort to stop Tehran developing a nuclear bomb, saying it was "unacceptable."
The number of centrifuges given by Aghazadeh was higher than a figure of 3,800 such machines the U.N. nuclear agency cited in a November 19 report, which was based on a visit by its inspectors to Iran's Natanz enrichment plant earlier in the month.
Iranian officials and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have also in the past differed in their estimates of Iran's nuclear program.
"Now we have 5,000 running centrifuges," Aghazadeh told the official IRNA news agency. Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar in August said Iran had 4,000 working centrifuges.
There was no immediate comment from IAEA officials.
Adding to tensions, Iran said on Wednesday it had launched a rocket called Kavosh 2, or Explorer 2, the latest in a series of ballistics tests that the West fears may form part of a bid to build missiles that could carry atomic warheads in future.
Analysts believe Iran could be as little as one or two years from enriching uranium to use in an atom bomb, if it so chose.
Iran, the world's fourth-largest crude producer, dismisses such charges. It insists its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more oil and gas.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki criticized Britain's "wrong" policies in the Middle East, after his British counterpart this week said "the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses the most immediate threat" to the region's stability.
Reacting to this and other comments by Britain's David Miliband, Iranian media quoted Mottaki as saying in reference to the outgoing U.S. president: " ... it is better for Britain if it does not get on board Bush's failed policy ship."
Iran's refusal to stop enriching uranium, which can provide fuel for nuclear power plants or material for bombs if refined much more, has drawn three rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006 as well as separate U.S. measures.
Asked about an offer by major powers including Washington to hold off on imposing more sanctions on Iran if it freezes further expansion of its nuclear activities, Aghazadeh was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency:
"Suspension of nuclear enrichment is not in our vocabulary."
Iran launched 3,000 centrifuges, a basis for industrial scale enrichment, at Natanz in central Iran in 2007. But they are the 1970s-vintage P1 design, prone to breakdown.
It said in April it had started installing 6,000 new centrifuges at Natanz and testing a more advanced model.
"In the next five years we should install at least 50,000 machines," Aghazadeh said, referring to fuel production Iran says it needs for a planned network of nuclear power plants.
The IAEA report earlier this month said that on top of the 3,800 centrifuges already enriching uranium another 2,200 were being gradually introduced. It said Iran planned to start installing another 3,000 centrifuges early next year.
But its figures showed Iran had not boosted the number of centrifuges regularly refining uranium since September. The reason for Iran's relatively slow progress was unclear, U.N. officials said at the time.
Aghazadeh also said Iran aimed to start electricity production at its first nuclear power plant, the Russian-built Bushehr facility, in mid-2009 and that it was making "good progress" with work on its Arak heavy water facility.
Iran says the Arak complex will be used to make isotopes for medical and agricultural ends. The West fears it is another part of a program to make weapons.