msnbc.com news services
updated 1/26/2007 12:20:30 PM ET 2007-01-26T17:20:30

Iran expects to start installing thousands of centrifuges in an underground facility next month, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Friday. The installation would pave the way to large-scale uranium enrichment, a potential way of making nuclear weapons.

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Mohamed ElBaradei said that “I understand that they are going to announce that they are going to build up their 3,000 centrifuge facility ... sometime next month.”

He did not elaborate. But U.N. officials, who demanded anonymity because the information was confidential, emphasized that Iran had not officially said it would embark on the assembly of what will initially be 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz. But they said senior officials have informally told the International Atomic Energy Agency the work would begin next month.

Iran ultimately plans to expand its enrichment program to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium gas into enriched material to produce nuclear fuel. That would give it the capacity to produce dozens of nuclear warheads a year, if it chose to develop weapons.

Diplomats briefed on the IAEA’s latest findings said earlier this month the Iranians recently finished all pre-assembly work at their Natanz facility, which is underground as protection against attack. And senior Iranian officials have repeatedly said recently that large-scale installation work at Natanz would begin soon.

First independent confirmation
But the comments by the U.N. officials were the first independent confirmation that the Iranians had informed the IAEA — the U.N. nuclear monitor — of such plans, even if informally.

The only known assembled cascades for now are above ground at Natanz, consisting of two linked chains of 164 machines each and two smaller setups.

The two larger cascades have been running only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium, while the smaller assemblies have been underground “dry testing” since late November, IAEA inspectors have reported.

That has led to speculation that Iran was hesitant to provoke U.N. Security Council sanctions harsher than the relatively mild penalties agreed on last month in response to Tehran’s refusal to heed a council deadline to suspend enrichment. Or, they said, it could be a sign of headway by relative moderates in the leadership unhappy with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational manner.

Any start of underground installations at Natanz, however, would sharply escalate the conflict between Tehran and world powers over its refusal to suspend enrichment.

Military action 'bonkers'
ElBaradei told a gathering at the forum that the West and Iran should declare a "timeout" under which Iranian nuclear work and U.N. sanctions would be suspended together.

He added that military action against Iran's nuclear sites, mooted by some U.S. officials, would be crazy and the two sides should stop flexing muscles and start direct dialogue.

"Iran should stop enriching uranium and the international community should take a timeout from implementing sanctions," he said.

"We need to reverse course because we are heading into a crash course," he said. "The idea that there's a military solution is absolutely bonkers."

The United Nations slapped preliminary sanctions on Iran last month for refusing to stop enriching uranium, the pathway to fuel for atomic energy or bombs, and impeding IAEA probes into the nature of its program.

Western powers suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Tehran says it only wants to generate power.

'No reason' for Iran approach
ElBaradei said simultaneous gestures of good will, not preconditions for negotiations set by the U.N. Security Council, were required to head off a conflict that could inflame the Middle East.

"There is no reason for Iran to feed nuclear material into enrichment cascades. They can take time out to build confidence (abroad). We have three to eight years (before Iran has bomb-making ability), which gives us a lot of time to reflect."

Western powers have warned sanctions could be significantly toughened if ElBaradei reports to the Security Council by a Feb. 21 deadline that Iran has not shelved uranium enrichment.

Diplomats say ElBaradei is convinced military intervention would permit Iran's ruling hardliners to crush reformist opposition, eject IAEA inspectors and pull Tehran out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermining it worldwide.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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