LONDON — Iran has told the UN nuclear supervisory body that it plans to install more sophisticated equipment at its principal nuclear enrichment plant, a diplomat said Thursday, in a move likely to worry the United States, Israel, and the West.
The diplomat, based in Vienna, the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, cited a letter from Iranian officials to the IAEA saying it wants to upgrade its main enrichment plant at Natanz. The upgrade could accelerate uranium enrichment by as much as two or three times, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.
The United States and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking the technology for nuclear weapons, but Iran says it wants to use enriched uranium purely for civilian and peaceful purposes.
The disclosure came amid high regional tension, a day after US officials said Israeli warplanes struck deep inside Syrian territory. The US officials said they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, that had been intended for the Hezbollah Shi’ite militia in Lebanon.
Iran is a close ally of Syria and Hezbollah. While an accelerated Iranian nuclear program would add to regional uncertainties — possibly renewing Israeli threats to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities — there was no immediate indication that the timing of Iran’s note to the IAEA was related to the events in Syria.
International negotiations on the nuclear program are stalled by disputes on the venue and date for the next round.
Iranian officials offered no immediate comment on the note, but nuclear experts said Iran’s ambitions to install more sophisticated centrifuges had been known for some time. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran first hinted publicly that Iranian scientists were conducting research to make these machines in 2006. According to news reports, Tehran began testing prototype centrifuges in 2010.
It was unclear from the Iranian note whether the new centrifuges would be used to enrich uranium to the roughly 4 percent purity level used for civilian power generation or to the 20 percent purity level that can be used in medical isotope production. The higher purity is more worrisome to Iran’s adversaries because it is a short technical step away from the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons.
Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based risk consultancy, said in a note to clients Thursday that the faster centrifuges, assuming they work well, ‘‘would mark a significant technological breakthrough’’ that theoretically could shorten the amount of time Iran would need to create fuel for nuclear weapons should it choose that path.
But Kupchan cautioned that ‘‘Iran has a long history of overstating its capabilities.’’
News of the Iranian note emerged days after Iran said it lofted a monkey into space.
While US analysts said the missile technology used in the experiment appeared to have little military relevance, James E. Oberg, a former NASA engineer and author of a dozen books on human spaceflight, said Iran’s civil space advances also had propaganda value because the peaceful flights could take global attention off the nation’s military ambitions.