Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, the UN nuclear watchdog said, a defiant step that will worry Western powers ahead of a resumption of talks with Tehran next week.
In a confidential report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said 180 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had been put in place at the facility near the central town of Natanz. They were not yet operating.
|Hillary Mann Leverett: Washington is really on a collision course with these [upcoming nuclear] talks
The IAEA's report showed "no evidence of diversion of material and nuclear activities towards military purposes," Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iranian media on Thursday.
If launched successfully, the West fears the new machines could enable Iran to speed up its accumulation of material that could be used to devise a nuclear weapon.
Iran says it is refining uranium only for peaceful energy purposes.
Hillary Mann Leverett, the author of 'Going to Tehran - Why the United States must come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran' told Al Jazeera: "Iran is doing what it has been doing for years, which is going forth with its nuclear programme - increasing the number of centrifuges.
"In 2003, Iran was spinning zero centrifuges, today they are spinning 8,000 centrifuges - they are just continuing their march toward mastering the fuel cycle and having as complete a nuclear programme as they possibly can," she said.
Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop a capability to make atomic bombs.
Tehran says it is Israel's assumed nuclear arsenal that threatens peace.
|In-depth coverage of a growing regional debate
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office said the report "proves that Iran continues to advance swiftly towards the red line" that he laid down last year.
Netanyahu, who has strongly hinted at possible military action if sanctions and diplomacy fail to halt Iran's nuclear drive, told the UN in September that Iran should not have enough higher-enriched uranium to make even a single warhead.
Iran's installation of new-generation centrifuges would be "yet another provocative step," according to US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland from Washington, DC.
White House spokesman Jay Carney warned Iran that it would face further pressure and isolation if it fails to address international concerns about its nuclear programme in the February 26 talks with world powers in the Kazakh city of Almaty.
"Washington, in particular, is really on a collision course with these talks," Leverett told Al Jazeera.
"This is a collision course that will really in the end just discredit engagement and leave us with very few options other than more coercion and ultimately war," she said.
Britain's Foreign Office said the IAEA's finding was of "serious concern".