--Diplomats say Iran beginning to expand enrichment facility.
VIENNA: Iran has set up new equipment that could let it produce more enriched uranium from a smaller amount of raw material, diplomats said Friday.
The step could one day make it easier to produce a nuclear bomb and is likely to give the US more leverage with Russia and China in its push for new UN sanctions on Iran.
Moscow a" which has softened its traditional opposition to sanctions in recent weeks a" warned Iran that time was running out to avoid such punishment, urging it to show compromise on its nuclear activities during a visit by Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after meeting Silva in Moscow that "maybe it is the last chance before the adopting of known decisions in the Security Council." The international showdown is focused at a nuclear facility in the desert outside the central city of Natanz.
Almost all of the thousands of centrifuges set up produce uranium that is made up of 3.5 percent uranium-235, the isotope needed to produce a nuclear explosion. Uranium enriched to 3.5 percent can be used to fuel civilian reactors that produce electricity a" Iran's declared purpose for enrichment.
One set of 164 centrifuges has been linked in a cascade, or string of machines, that has been producing uranium enriched to near 20 percent since February.
If enriched to around 95 percent, uranium can be used in building a nuclear bomb. At 20 percent, it can be turned into weapons-grade material much more quickly than less-enriched uranium.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), monitors Natanz with remotely controlled video cameras and inspections by experts.
Two diplomats who are familiar with the information produced by that monitoring said that Iranian technicians had in recent weeks assembled another 164-centrifuge cascade.
Tehran denies any interest in developing nuclear arms and says it needs the higher enriched uranium to supply a research reactor with fuel after a UN-supported deal to provide the material from abroad fell apart.
An IAEA-backed plan that offered nuclear fuel rods for Tehran's research reactor in exchange for most of Iran's stock of lower-level enriched uranium initially raised Western hopes that it could temporarily curb Iran's capacity to make a nuclear bomb.
But it hit a dead end last year after Iran rejected it, though the country's leaders have since tried to keep the offer on the table, proposing variations without accepting the original terms.
Meanwhile, at UN headquarters on Thursday, US Ambassador Susan Rice said that talks on a US-drafted sanctions resolution are making "good progress."
The stepped-up diplomatic activity is taking place ahead of a weekend visit to Tehran by Silva, the Brazilian president whose country is one of the 10 non-permanent council members. Silva has indicated a reluctance to support new sanctions against Iran.
Iran says Brazil and Turkey a" which are UN Security Council members a" have offered a promising new proposal for a nuclear fuel deal that would make the US-led push for sanctions irrelevant. Western diplomats, however have dismissed that announcement as a further tactic in what they characterize as Tehran's diplomatic maneuvering to avoid sanctions.
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|Publication:||The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)|
|Date:||May 15, 2010|
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