From news reports
Iran said Monday it is currently installing 3,000 centrifuges, effectively confirming that its nuclear program is running behind schedule as these devices for uranium enrichment were to have been in place by the end of last year.
"We are moving toward the production of nuclear fuel, which requires 3,000 centrifuges (or more)," the Associated Press quoted government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham as saying in a news conference. "The program is being carried out and moving toward completion."
On the weekend, Iran dismissed reports from Europe that its uranium enrichment program had been stalled. Enriched uranium is used as fuel in nuclear reactor and, at a higher degree of enrichment, it is also used in atomic bombs.
But last year Iran had said the installation of the 3,000 centrifuges at its facility in Natanz, located in central Iran, would be completed by the end of 2006.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of trying to produce atomic weapons. Iran denies this, saying its program is only for generating electricity. Iran`s failure to install the 3,000 centrifuges by Dec. 31 has provoked reports that it is encountering technical difficulties in mastering large-scale enrichment.
Earlier this month, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told reporters that about 50 centrifuges had exploded during a test.
"We had installed 50 centrifuges. One night, I was informed that all the 50 centrifuges had exploded ... (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad called me and said: `Build these machines even if they explode 10 times more,"` Aghazadeh was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
In Brussels on the same day, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that new U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf were prompted in part by signals from Iran that it sees the United States as vulnerable in Iraq.
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us in many ways," Gates told reporters at NATO headquarters before flying to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and to visit U.S. soldiers and commanders.
It was Gates` first trip to Afghanistan since he took over for Donald H. Rumsfeld last month.
Gates indicated that Iran`s perception of U.S. vulnerability was part of the reason the Pentagon decided last week to send a second aircraft carrier battle group and a Patriot anti-missile battalion to the Gulf area.
Laying out his concerns about Iran, Gates cited Iranian support for the radical Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. He also asserted that the Iranians "are doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point."
Gates said that as recently as 2004 the Iranians were "actually doing some things to be helpful" in Iraq, at a time when they felt concern at the presence of U.S. troops on their western and eastern borders, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"None of those conditions apply any longer," Gates said, responding to reporters` questions about the reasoning behind the Pentagon`s decision announced last week to dispatch a second aircraft carrier battle group and a Patriot missile battalion to the Gulf area.
"The Iranians are acting in a very negative way in many respects," Gates said, mentioning their refusal thus far to accept repeated international calls to stop elements of their nuclear program.
"My view is that when the Iranians are prepared to play a constructive role in dealing with some of these problems then there might be opportunities for engagement," he added.
Gates said there was nothing surprising at the U.S. decision to send a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
"We are simply reaffirming that statement of the importance of the Gulf region to the United States and our determination to be an ongoing strong presence in that area for a long time into the future," he said.
Iran`s increasing assertiveness is a cause for concern among many Gulf nations ruled by Sunni Arabs, including Saudi Arabia. They worry that U.S. failure in Iraq would further embolden the Iranians, whose links to Shiite extremists in the region are seen as a threat to U.S.-allied Gulf nations.
Gates has indicated he would like the Saudis and other Gulf nations to do more, particularly with economic assistance, to help stabilize Iraq.