VIENNA — Iran has prepared more than 1,000 advanced uranium enriching machines for startup the U.N.'s nuclear agency said Wednesday, a move that is likely to raise concerns among countries who accuse Tehran of wanting to harness enrichment for the production of atomic arms.
At the same time, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran now has pushed back the time frame for the operation of a reactor that Iran's critics fear could be used to make plutonium, which – like enriched uranium – can be used for the fissile core of nuclear weapons.
The report also confirmed that the IAEA and Iranian experts have agreed to restart talks focused on the agency's attempts to probe suspicions that Tehran worked on atomic weapons, in what would be first such meeting since Iran's hard-line president was replaced by a more moderate successor. News of the planned Sept. 27 meeting was revealed first to The Associated Press by diplomats earlier Wednesday.
Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons, insisting that both enrichment and the reactor are meant for peaceful purposes, such as production of energy and medical and scientific research. Since 2006, it has shrugged off numerous U.N. Security Council and other international sanctions meant to curb its nuclear activities, as well as incentives offered during international negotiations and aimed at the same goal.
The confidential report obtained by the AP was released Wednesday to the agency's 35 board member nations and the Security Council. It said Iran had installed about 300 more of its advanced centrifuges since the last report in May, for a total of 1,008, and had put all of them under vacuum.
Such a move is normally one of the last steps before the machines start spinning uranium gas into the material that can be used either as reactor fuel or as the core of nuclear warheads, depending on its enrichment level.
The report also said Iran had installed more of its older-generation centrifuges to bring up their number to more than 15,000, with most of them running. But most concerns are likely to be generated by the pre-start up work on the high-tech IR2-m centrifuges because they are three to four times more effective than the older IR-1 machines.
In addition to putting the existing IR2-ms under vacuum, pre-installation work was continuing for about 2,000 additional advanced centrifuges, said the report.
Commenting on the report's findings, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington remains "concerned about Iran's continued expansion of its enrichment capability."
Summarizing the progress of construction of the plutonium-producing reactor at Arak, in central Iran, the IAEA noted some advances. At the same time it cited an Iranian letter telling the agency that due to unspecified delays the startup date was `'not achievable, so it cannot be the first quarter of 2014."
That target date, previously cited by the Islamic Republic, has been described as unrealistic by nuclear experts who say the reactor is unlikely to be operating before sometime in 2015 at the earliest.
With its stockpile of enriched uranium at thousands of kilograms (pounds) and growing, Iran theoretically has enough material to make several nuclear weapons. But most of the material is enriched only to fuel grade and any move to turn it into uranium for weapons is difficult and quickly detectable.
A smaller cache is enriched to higher levels that make it more easily convertible. But the report noted that this more sensitive supply remained below the amount need to convert into the 20 to 25 kilograms (50 to 55 pounds) of high-enriched uranium needed to make one weapon, with Iran continuing to turn most of what it makes into a form that is difficult to rework into weapons use.
The Sept. 27 Iran-IAEA talks confirmed in the report focus on gaining access to a section of the Parchin military site that the agency has long tried to access.
Before the talks were suspended earlier this year, IAEA experts met Iranian negotiators 10 times over 18 months in futile efforts to start their probe of the area, southeast of Tehran. The agency suspects that the location was used by the Islamic Republic to test conventional explosive triggers for a nuclear blast. Iran denies working on atomic weapons at Parchin or anywhere else.
With no new date announced for the resumption of broader nuclear talks between Iran and five world powers on hold, the meeting on Parchin will be the first test of centrist President Hasan Rouhani's pledge to reduce confrontation with the international community over its atomic activities.
Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran blamed the IAEA for the standoff over Parchin, saying it is caused by the agency's refusal to agree on strict parameters that would govern its probe. The agency in turn says such an agreement would tie its hands by putting limits on what it could look for and whom it could question. It bases its suspicions of nuclear-weapons research and development by Iran on its own research and intelligence from the U.S., Israel and other Iran critics.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told reporters earlier this year he was concerned about satellite images showing asphalt work, soil removal, and "possible dismantling of infrastructures" at Parchin. Iran says such activities are part of regular construction that has nothing to do with alleged attempts to cleanse the area of evidence. But Amano said that because of such activities, "it may no longer be possible to find anything even if we have access to the site."
Repeating previous comments in Wednesday's report, Amano said that unless Iran decides to fully cooperate with the agency, the IAEA cannot shut the book on its probe and `'conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed from Washington.