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One step forward, one step back on Iran's nuclear program

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Iran's nuclear program has been surrounded by mixed signals in recent weeks. As the Monitor's Scott Peterson reported yesterday, Iran has taken a number of steps lately that seem to indicate it is slowing down its nuclear progress, possibly to avoid reaching the point at which Israel would feel compelled to retaliate. It has converted some of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, taking it out of the mix for use in potential nuclear weapons, and seems to have made no strides forward in its development of longer-range weapons that could carry a nuclear warhead.

But it also announced yesterday, as Iranian officials met with IAEA inspectors, the installation of a new generation of centrifuges for enriching uranium, which could "significantly speed up its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to develop a nuclear weapon," Reuters reports.

Enriched uranium can fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated aim, or, if refined to a high degree, provide material for bombs, which the West suspects is Tehran's real purpose - something Iran strenuously denies.

If deployed successfully, new-generation centrifuges could refine uranium several times faster than the model Iran now has.

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[Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization] said the new machines were specifically for lower-grade enrichment of uranium to below 5 percent purity.

Nuclear proliferation expert Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment told Reuters that the centrifuge announcement may be less a sign of a leap forward and more about gathering "bargaining chips" before the next round of negotiations.

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