Iran presses ahead with nuclear program

Iran has increased the number of operating centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant to 4,000, a top official said Friday, pushing ahead with the nuclear program despite threats of new U.N. sanctions.

The number was up from the 3,000 centrifuges that Iran announced in November that it was operating at its plant in the central city of Natanz. Still, it is well below the 6,000 it said last year it would operate by summer 2008, suggesting the program may be behind schedule.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who visited Natanz last week, said Friday that Iran was preparing to install even more centrifuges, though he did not offer a timeframe.

“Right now, nearly 4,000 centrifuges are operating at Natanz,” Attar told the state news agency IRNA. “Currently, 3,000 other centrifuges are being installed.”

The U.N. has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to freeze its enrichment program, which can be used to produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material needed for a nuclear warhead.

In the process, uranium gas is spun in a series of centrifuges known as “cascades” to purify it. Lower levels of enrichment produce reactor fuel – which Iran says is the sole purpose of the program – but higher grades can build a weapon.

The United States and its allies are likely to press the U.N. later this year for a new round of sanctions after Iran did not accept a package of economic and technological incentives in return for suspending enrichment. But they could face strong resistance from Russia after this month's crisis in Georgia deeply damaged ties between Washington and Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested his country's cooperation with the West on the Iran issue could be hurt by the Georgia tensions.

Asked if Moscow might stop cooperation if it comes under increased pressure over Georgia, he told CNN that Russia is “working very consistently and diligently with its partners” on the Iran issue.

But “if nobody wants to talk with us on these issues and cooperation with Russia is not needed, then for God's sake, do it yourselves,” he said in the interview aired Thursday.

Russia, which has close ties to Tehran, has long been reluctant to impose harsh sanctions – though it backed the past three rounds of limited financial sanctions.

The U.S. and some of its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a claim Iran denies. Tehran insists it has the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop reactor fuel.