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As talks near, Iran again defiant

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 7:00 p.m.

VIENNA — Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, a defiant step that will worry Western powers with a resumption of talks with Tehran set for next week.

In a confidential report, the International Atomic Energy Agency 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.

Such machines could enable Iran to speed up significantly its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to devise a nuclear weapon. Iran says it is refining uranium only for peaceful energy purposes.

Iran's installation of new-generation centrifuges would be “yet another provocative step,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

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 program in the Feb. 26 talks with world powers in the Kazakh city of Almaty.

Britain's Foreign Office said the IAEA's finding was of “serious concern.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 military action if sanctions and diplomacy fail to halt Iran's nuclear drive, told the United Nations in September that Iran should not have enough highly enriched uranium to make even a single warhead.

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.

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.

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