updated 10/23/2006 3:56:37 PM ET 2006-10-23T19:56:37

Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment program even as the U.N. Security Council focuses on possible sanctions for its defiance of a demand to give up the activity and ease fears it seeks nuclear weapons, diplomats said Monday.

The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the information to media, told The Associated Press that within the past few weeks Iranian nuclear experts had started a second pilot enrichment facility.

While the 164 centrifuges were not producing enriched uranium, even the decision to “dry test” them showed Iran’s defiance of the Security Council. The council had set an Aug. 31 deadline for Tehran to cease all experiments linked to enrichment. It may start full deliberations on sanctions as early as later this week.

Iran produced a small batch of low-enriched uranium — suitable as nuclear fuel but not weapons grade — in February, using its initial cascade of 164 centrifuges at its pilot plant at Natanz. The process of uranium enrichment can be used to generate electricity or to create an atomic weapon, depending on the level of enrichment.

Iran said it plans to install 3,000 centrifuges at its enrichment plant in Natanz, central Iran, by the end of this year. Industrial production of enriched uranium in Natanz would require 54,000 centrifuges.

Although it is nowhere near that goal, successful testing of other “cascades” would indicate that Tehran is slowly mastering the complexities of producing enriched uranium.

A U.N. official said that even a “dry-run” allows Tehran “to develop the technology, to make sure that things work.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has taken the lead in probing Tehran’s nuclear program since the existence of a clandestine enrichment program was revealed more than three years ago, could not be reached for comment and issued no official confirmation.

Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, the chief Iranian envoy to the IAEA, said he had no knowledge of “new developments” at Natanz. But he told the AP that all nuclear activities “are going on as planned.”

Ahmadinejad: Capability up ‘tenfold’
In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country’s nuclear capability has increased tenfold despite Western pressure to roll back its atomic program, which Iran insists is peaceful.

“The enemies, resorting to propaganda, want to block us from achieving (nuclear technology),” Ahmadinejad told a crowd on the southern outskirts of Tehran. “But they should know that today, the capability of our nation has multiplied tenfold over the same period last year.”

Ahmadinejad boasted that “the power of our enemies is less than one-tenth of their power in last year.”

He did not elaborate, and the remarks appeared aimed primarily at rallying public support as the U.N. Security Council prepares to consider limited sanctions.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The United States and dozens of other countries fear, however, that it is secretly trying to make nuclear arms.

Ahmadinejad repeated that Iran was ready to negotiate about its nuclear ambitions. But the six nations that have spearheaded the most recent attempts to bring Iran to the negotiating table continue to call on Iran to first suspend enrichment.

Incentives rejected by Tehran
The Islamic republic has turned down a package of incentives offered by those six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — on condition that all enrichment activities cease.

The United States and its Western Security Council allies, Britain and France, have drafted a text that would impose limited sanctions on Iran for its defiance. But a U.N. diplomat told the AP that the text might have to be softened to enlist the support of Russia and China, which have veto power on the Security Council.

Both Moscow and Beijing are reluctant to impose harsh punishments on Tehran, an economic and strategic partner. They also fear that any sanctions — which for now rule out military action — could still start the process toward consideration of force.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday he was hopeful talks with the Iranians would resume and that there was a “real chance” for a negotiated settlement without sanctions.

However, the European Union’s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said that Tehran had not responded positively to the incentives package and that the Security Council may need to explore “another alternative.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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