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Mon 28 Jul 2008 11:57 PM

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Iran inflates atom progress - diplomat close to IAEA

Confusion over exact number of centrifuges as two-week deadline nears.

Iran appears to have overstated the expansion of its uranium enrichment programme at a sensitive juncture in talks with world powers, a diplomat close to the UN nuclear watchdog agency said on Monday.He said the International Atomic Energy Agency checked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement on Saturday that Iran had more than 5,000 centrifuges running and could verify just 4,000 were installed, 3,500 of which were regularly enriching uranium.

"This is the latest, verified information the agency has, as of today," said the Vienna-based diplomat, who is familiar with the UN watchdog's inspections in Iran.

These figures were only marginally higher than those given in the IAEA's last monitoring report on Iran two months ago.

He said it could not be ruled out Iran indeed had greater numbers of centrifuges operating as Ahmadinejad said because Iran limits the scope and frequency of IAEA inspections, but the agency had no supporting evidence at this time.

Ahmadinejad's remarks, pointing to a rapid expansion of a secretive nuclear programme the West fears is aimed at yielding atom bombs, followed inconclusive talks with world powers that explored a possible compromise to ease a five-year standoff.

After the Geneva meeting on July 19, Western officials gave Iran two weeks to reply clearly to an offer of no further steps to wider sanctions against Tehran if it caps enrichment activity at current, agreed levels.

A senior Iranian official said Tehran would not discuss the idea, known in diplomatic circles as a "freeze for freeze", in further talks, let alone a more sweeping full suspension of enrichment to qualify for a batch of financial sweeteners.

Iran has periodically exaggerated its nuclear advances, Western diplomats and analysts say, to try to boost its leverage with world powers, but that it will master enrichment technology within a few years if the programme continues unrestrained.

The diplomat close to the IAEA said Iran's progress in augmenting enrichment capacity towards critical "industrial scale" - refining uranium in quantities sufficient to fuel nuclear power stations or warheads - still seemed to be slow.

Ahmadinejad was imprecise on his centrifuge numbers, raising some confusion in the West over what he actually meant.

He was quoted by state television as saying "today we have more than 5,000 active centrifuges", while he told state radio that the West had now "accepted that Iran would continue uranium enrichment with its current 6,000 centrifuges".

"It's hard to verify what Ahmadinejad actually said, let alone the (true number of centrifuges). The figure of 4,000 is more plausible compared to where they were (two months ago)," a European Union diplomat accredited to the IAEA told Reuters.

One Iranian analyst said he was surprised by Ahmadinejad's announcement as there had been no indication from the IAEA of such a significant increase in Iran's enrichment capacity.

Iran launched 3,000 centrifuges, considered the foundation for industrial-scale enrichment, in its underground Natanz enrichment hall in central Iran in 2007.

Tehran said in April it had begun installing 6,000 new centrifuges at Natanz. It is testing a small number of a more advanced, durable centrifuge at an adjacent pilot plant.

Iran denies any covert bomb programme, saying it wants enriched uranium only for an alternative source of electricity so it can export more of its vast oil reserves. (Reuters)