Iran's nutjob-in-chief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has again boasted that his country has 3,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges in operation. The Iranian leader made the claim today, in a speech in the northeastern city of Birjand.
To its credit, AFP notes that this is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has claimed that Iran has 3,000 operational centrifuges, which can be used to produce nuclear fuel, or (in a highly enriched form) the fissile core for an atomic bomb. Ahmadinejad made a similar statement in early September, bragging that his country had reached the 3,000 threshold, and was adding new centrifuges "every week."
More disturbingly, the Iranian president's appear to have some basis in fact. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in August that Tehran had 1968 operational centrifuges, and another 656 were under construction or being tested. Assuming that the second batch of centrifuges are now fully functional (and more have been added), it's quite possible that Iran has 3,000 operational centrifuges.
Of course, the real issue is the purity of the enriched uranium now being produced in Iran. Typical early centrifuge operations can yield fuel-grade uranium (with a purity of 10% of less), but that's a long way from the 90-percent "purity" required for weapons-grade uranium.
The 3,000 centrifuge benchmark is considered important because that's the number that can produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a bomb in one year--assuming that required purity levels are reached and sustained.
Ahmadinejad's claim may be exaggerated, but it comes only days after Israeli intelligence released its latest assessment of Iran's nuclear threat. According to the Israelis, Iran could have its first nuclear weapon by 2009, but that is clearly a "best case" scenario. Most estimates envision Iran attaining a nuclear capability after 2010.
Assuming of course, that they haven't acquired key components--or a finished weapon--from their friends in Pyongyang. We know that nuclear "material" from North Korea was shipped to Syria and destroyed in that recent Israeli airstrike. It's worth remembering that there have been plenty of shipments between North Korea and Iran in recent years, too.