Iran has started to install next-generation centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility, according to nuclear inspectors. The US and Israel have warned that the move amounts to a provocation.
In a report on Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said 180 of the IR-2m centrifuges had been either fully or partially mounted at the Natanz facility.
"On 6 February 2013, the agency observed that Iran had started the installation of IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz plant," the report said.
The IR-2M centrifuges can be used to enrich uranium three to five times faster than the existing centrifuges, named IR-1.
"This is the first time that centrifuges more advanced than the IR-1 have been installed at the plant," the report said.
The development is significant because it could speed up the rate at which Iran is able to amass weapons-grade material. The news has cast a shadow over fresh talks between Tehran and six nations, including Germany, next week.
‘Not enough for a bomb'
However the report noted that Iran had a usable stockpile below the threshold level of about 250 kilograms, the amount necessary to build one bomb. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the report proved Tehran was getting ever closer to constructing its own nuclear weapon. Israel, which is the Middle East's only nuclear power, has said Iran must be stopped before it develops military nuclear capabilities and has warned it may use military force to do so.
"Iran is continuing to rapidly advance to the red line," a statement read. Iran is closer than ever today to obtaining enriched material for a nuclear bomb," read the statement.
The US State Department meanwhile warned that the installation of such centrifuges, as reported, would be a "provocative step." The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions demanding that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment, with a raft of US-led sanctions now in place.
"The installation of new advanced centrifuges would be a further escalation and a continuing violation of Iran's obligations," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Nuland urged Iran to engage seriously with talks set to begin next Tuesday between Iran and the so-called P5 plus 1 group – permanent Security Council member the US, China, Russia, Britain and France, as well as Germany. The meetings, in Kazakhstan, will be the first since three rounds of meetings ended in a stalemate in June.
rc/hc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)