TEHRAN, Oct 4 (Reuters) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today Iran had overcome difficulties en route to a nuclear energy industry and no one could stop it, a day after France called for wider European sanctions to rein in Tehran.
Diplomats said Iran had installed close to 3,000 centrifuge machines, enough to start refining usable amounts of nuclear fuel, but would need to run them in unison at high speeds for long periods to attain that threshold.
The UN nuclear watchdog director told the Financial Times daily on Tuesday that Iran was feeding uranium into centrifuges for enrichment at only 10 per cent of their capacity and remained ''far from having a nuclear weapon'', assuming Tehran wanted one.
Western powers fear Iran's declared quest for nuclear-generated electricity is a front for mastering the means to build atom bombs. They sponsored two sets of UN sanctions against Tehran and are preparing to draft harsher penalties.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wrote to his European Union counterparts urging them to explore widening financial sanctions on Iran, saying the world could not afford to wait for UN action. Russia and China have held up tougher UN steps.
''I announce to the whole world that the Iranian nation has passed the difficult points (on its nuclear path),'' Ahmadinejad said in remarks carried by Iran's official news agency IRNA.
''And no power can stop this nation from making more and more (atomic) achievements,'' he said.
Previous remarks about an enrichment breakthrough by Ahmadinejad, including a proclamation in April of industrial capacity, have lacked evidence and elicited scepticism abroad.
Diplomats close to the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency originally expected Iran to have 3,000 centrifuges running by May or June. But in July the IAEA reported a slowdown in the programme which continued at least into mid-September.
A French diplomat said UN inspectors now believed Iran would have 3,000 operating by the end of October.
He said Tehran was still experiencing technical problems, and some breakage, but the programme was doggedly proceeding.
''So much of this has been about political boasting, though,'' said an EU diplomat accredited to the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, cautioning that forecasts of advances were linked to what Iran told inspectors.
''Running a large number of centrifuges in parallel over a sustained period at full speed -- that would be a technical achievement they have not thus far shown they can do.'' Some diplomats and analysts believe Iran's slow enrichment pace has also been politically motivated -- to blunt US-led pressure for stiffer sanctions.
Six world powers agreed last Friday to delay toughening sanctions until November at the earliest to await an IAEA report on whether Iran is carrying out a plan agreed with inspectors to clarify past secret aspects of its programme.
But, concerned Iran is buying time to perfect enrichment, the powers have reiterated Tehran must suspend nuclear activity and permit wider-ranging inspections as called for by UN resolutions to earn trust and negotiations on trade benefits.
REUTERS AM KP2235