Iran virtually halted uranium enrichment expansion: IAEA report

Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani told NBC News his country will 'never' develop nuclear weapons.

VIENNA (Reuters) — Iran has virtually halted a previously rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment capacity in the past three months, the UN nuclear agency said in a report roughly covering the period since moderate Hassan Rouhani became president.

The quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also showed that Iran's stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium — closely watched by the West and Israel — had risen by about 5 percent to 196 kg since August.

But it remained below the roughly 250 kg needed for a bomb if refined further. Iran denies Western and Israeli accusations that it is seeking nuclear weapons capability, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy.

The quarterly IAEA report — scrutinized by Western governments — was the first that included developments only since Rouhani took office on August 3, prompting a diplomatic opening during which Iran and six world powers have made progress towards ending a standoff over its nuclear activity.

The IAEA said Iran had installed only four first-generation centrifuges — machines used to refine uranium — at its Natanz plant since August, making a total of 15,240. In the previous three-month period, May-August, it installed more than 1,800. Not all of the installed centrifuges are operating.

Rouhani, a pragmatist, succeeded bellicose hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August, promising to try to settle the decade-old nuclear dispute and secure an easing of sanctions that have severely damaged Iran's oil-dependent economy.

(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)