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Ahmadinejad Announces Iran Uranium Enrichment Milestone

BIRJAND, Iran (AP) — Iran has achieved a landmark, with 3,000 centrifuges fully working in its controversial uranium enrichment program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday.

"We have now reached 3,000 machines," Ahmadinejad told thousands of Iranians gathered in Birjand, in eastern Iran, in a show of defiance of international demands to halt the program believed to be masking the country's nuclear arms efforts.

Ahmadinejad has in the past claimed that Iran succeeded in installing the 3,000 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. But Wednesday's claim was his first official statement that the plant is now operating all those centrifuges.

When Iran first announced launching the 3,000 centrifuges in April, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran had only 328 centrifuges up and running at Natanz's underground facility.

In a recent report, drawn up by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency put the number of centrifuges working in Natanz at close to 2,000, with another 650 being tested.

Although Ahmadinejad was not totally precise, the tone and setting of his Wednesday speech reflected he clearly meant the 3,000 were fully operational.

Uranium gas, spun in linked centrifuges, can result in either low-enriched fuel suitable to generate power in a nuclear reactor, or the weapons-grade material that forms the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

The U.S. and some of its Western allies believe Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for weapons' development. Tehran denies this, insisting its nuclear program is geared toward generating electricity, not a nuclear bomb.

U.S. experts say 3,000 centrifuges are in theory enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps as soon as within a year.

Iran says it plans to expand its enrichment program to up to 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz in central Iran — which would amount to the level of industrial-scale uranium enrichment.

Two rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to halt the enrichment.

Ahmadinejad on Wednesday reiterated his rejection of any suspension of Iran's enrichment activities, or even a compromise over how Tehran will proceed beyond the 3,000 centrifuges.

"They say they've swallowed (bitterly accepted) these 3,000 and want to reach an agreement with us on what to do, at what speed, how many (centrifuges) a day or week," Ahmadinejad said of latest Western pressures.

"Our response is: 'Who are you to make comments about the Iranian nation ... do we ask you how many machine you have,"' Ahmadinejad added.

He also said he had bluntly refused a recent offer to negotiate with the United States over Iran's nuclear activities.

"I, as your representative, told those who brought the message that we didn't ask for talks ... If talks are to be held, it is the Iranian nation that has to set conditions, not the arrogant and the criminals," Ahmadinejad said.

"The world must know that this nation will not give up one iota of its nuclear rights ... if they think they can get concessions from this nation, they are badly mistaken," he concluded.

Iran says it is fully within its rights to pursue the enrichment to produce fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.