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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iran Greatly Expands Uranium Enrichment

NATANZ, Iran -- Iran announced Monday that it had begun enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges, a dramatic expansion of a nuclear program that has drawn UN sanctions and condemnation from the West.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a ceremony at the enrichment facility at Natanz that Iran was now capable of enriching nuclear fuel "on an industrial scale."

Asked whether Iran has begun injecting uranium gas into 3,000 centrifuges for enrichment, top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani replied, "Yes."

He did not elaborate, but it was the first confirmation that Iran had installed the larger set of centrifuges after months of saying it intended to do so. Until now, Iran was only known to have 328 centrifuges operating.

Uranium enrichment can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material for a nuclear warhead. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of intending to produce weapons, a charge the country denies.

The announcement brought quick condemnation from the United States and Europe. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Iran's actions were the reason the UN Security Council and the UN nuclear watchdog "don't believe Iran's assurances that their [nuclear] program is peaceful in nature."

The move showed Iran was "definitively going in the wrong direction," said the Foreign Ministry in Germany, which currently holds the European Union presidency.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, had no immediate comment.

U.S. experts said 3,000 centrifuges was enough to produce a nuclear weapon but said they were skeptical of Iran's claims, saying they had strong doubts Iran really had the capability to operate so many devices, a highly complicated process.

"I don't believe they have 3,000 up and running in any reasonable sense," said Michael Levi, a nonproliferation expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The UN has vowed to ratchet up sanctions as long as Iran refuses to suspend enrichment. The Security Council first imposed limited sanctions in December, then increased them slightly last month and has set a new deadline of late May.