Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, the United Nations nuclear watchdog has reported.
The revelation comes ahead of resumed talks with Tehran next week over its disputed nuclear programme.
Yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said 180 IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had been hooked up at the plant near the town of Natanz but were not yet operating.
If launched successfully, they could enable Iran to speed up its accumulation of material western powers fear could be used to build a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it is refining uranium only for peaceful energy purposes.
The deployment of the new centrifuges further complicates efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically.
Six world powers and Iran are to meet for the first time in eight months in Kazakhstan on 28 February to try to break the impasse but analysts expect no real progress toward defusing suspicions of an Iranian quest for nuclear weapons capability.
In a more encouraging sign, however, the IAEA report said Iran in December resumed converting some of its uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent to powder for the production of reactor fuel.
That helped restrain the growth of Iran’s higher-grade uranium stockpile since the previous report in November, a development that could buy more time for diplomacy and delay threatened Israeli military action.
The report said Iran had increased to 167kg its stockpile of 20 per cent uranium – a level it says it needs to make fuel for a research reactor.
It needs about 250kg to make one atom bomb.