TEHRAN — Iran will step up its uranium enrichment program by sharply increasing the number of centrifuges used to make nuclear fuel, a senior official said Wednesday, in direct defiance of Western demands.
The statement by Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, is likely to escalate tensions. The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program could be headed toward weapons production and has imposed punishing sanctions to try to persuade Tehran to stop enrichment.
Iran has denied the charges, saying its program is peaceful and geared toward generating electricity and producing radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.
Uranium enriched to a low level is used to produce nuclear fuel for reactors, but high level enrichment would make it suitable for atomic warheads.
Abbasi said Iran is making nuclear advances in the face of the severe economic measures imposed by the United Nations and the West.
‘‘Despite sanctions, we will most likely see a substantial increase in the number of centrifuge machines this year. We will continue enrichment with intensity,’’ Abbasi was quoted by state TV as saying Wednesday.
Abbasi did not say if Iran’s stepped up work would be at the 5 percent fuel level or the higher 20 percent quality. There have been indications that Iran may push its enrichment even higher than the 20 percent acknowledged to UN nuclear watchdogs.
His remarks follow a UN agency report that said that Iran is about to double its output of higher enriched uranium at its fortified Fordo underground facility.