TEHRAN (Reuters) - Russia cast doubt on Tuesday on Iran’s announcement that it is now making nuclear fuel on an industrial scale, a move that would take the Islamic Republic closer to making an atomic bomb.
Two U.N. inspectors, who could provide the first independent assessment of any Iranian progress, arrived on Tuesday to inspect the Natanz uranium enrichment site where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran had expanded its atomic work.
Iran’s enrichment activity, until now at an experimental level, has drawn international criticism, including from Russia, its closest big power ally. The U.N. Security Council has slapped sanctions on Iran for not stopping the work.
“We are not aware of any technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear programme recently which would change the nature of work on enrichment being carried out in the country,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was seeking clarification from the International Atomic Energy Agency and he had no confirmation enrichment had begun in new machines.
Western analysts say Iran has made grand claims in the past about progress to strengthen its bargaining hand with the West but say Tehran has glossed over technical glitches that mean it is probably several years from being able to make a bomb.
Diplomats also suggested Iran’s achievements could be more limited and aimed at showing Tehran would not be deterred from atomic work.
Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, insists it wants only to make fuel for atomic power plants it is planning. Its first one is still under construction with Russian help.
An Iranian official said two IAEA inspectors had arrived in Iran for a week-long, routine visit to include Natanz. The result of their trip is likely to emerge only after they leave.
Inspectors from the Vienna-based IAEA routinely visit Natanz and other sites but Tehran halted more intrusive snap checks last year when its case was sent to the U.N. Security Council.
Germany, now president of the European Union, voiced “great concern” about Iran’s announcement in a statement and urged Tehran to abide by international demands.
Iranian officials said on Monday Iran had started injecting gas into a batch of 3,000 atomic centrifuges being installed at Natanz. They gave no figures for the number of machines set up and running, saying U.N. inspectors would confirm numbers.
With 3,000 machines, Iran could make enough material for a bomb within a year, if it wanted, Western experts say. But the machines would all need to run smoothly, which experts say has not been the case with the experimental machines Tehran has.
Diplomats said before Monday that Iran had set up a third of the 3,000 machines but had not injected uranium gas feedstock.
“They have their own calendar, they want to prove that they are proceeding and that nothing will stop them. Now whether they have the 3,000 spinning with gas being fed, I have my doubts about that,” said one Vienna-based diplomat.
But Iran said the West should take note of its progress.
“Our situation before enriching uranium was different. It changed at the stage of pilot (work) and then at the industrial stage, which we have obtained, we have a superior position,” Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency.
The United States has said it is “very concerned” about Iran’s announcement. Washington says Iran must stop the work to start talks, a precondition Tehran has repeatedly rejected.
“We have passed the stage of setting conditions for talks ... We believe that other parties should move forward based on new realities,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said.
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, James Kilner in Moscow, Karin Strohecker in Vienna and Noah Barkin in Berlin