DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has conducted "mechanical" tests on a new, advanced machine to refine uranium, a senior official was quoted as saying on Wednesday, a disclosure that may annoy Western states pushing Tehran to scale back its nuclear program.
Iran's development of new centrifuges to replace its current breakdown-prone model is watched closely by Western officials as it could allow the Islamic Republic to amass potential atomic bomb material much faster.
Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and that it produces low-enriched uranium only to make fuel for a planned network of atomic energy plants. If processed to a high fissile concentration, uranium can be used for nuclear weapons.
"Manufacturing and production of new centrifuges is our right," Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi said.
Iran's Fars news agency also quoted him as saying that Iran had carried out tests on its latest generation of centrifuge, the IR-8, but had not yet fed it with uranium gas.
U.N. nuclear agency reports this year showed Iran testing four other models under development at an above-ground Natanz nuclear site - IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6 and IR-6s - with uranium gas.
After Iran informed the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency in December that it planned to install a single IR-8, the IAEA said in May that it had observed a new "casing" at the site, adding however that it was not yet connected.
An interim accord struck late last year in Geneva between Iran and six world powers - designed to buy time for talks on a final nuclear deal - stipulated that Iran could not go beyond the centrifuge research and development (R&D) it has been conducting at the Natanz site, including testing of new models.
In a comment that Western officials may dispute, Salehi said that "based on the Geneva agreement, research and development have no limit", Fars reported.
"Mechanical tests (regarding the IR-8 centrifuge) have been done but gas has yet to be injected," he said, and this would require President Hassan Rouhani's permission.
The negotiations between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, China, Britain and Russia - aimed at ending a decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program - were in July extended until Nov. 24 in view of persistent wide differences.
A senior U.S. official on July 18 said Iran's nuclear R&D was a "very tough topic" in the discussions, among others.
Faced with technical hurdles and difficulty in obtaining parts abroad, Iran has been trying for years to replace the erratic, 1970s vintage IR-1 centrifuge it now operates at its underground Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment facilities.
Although Iran's progress so far appears limited, it is an issue that Western states would want to see addressed as part of any final settlement over Iran's nuclear program.
They want Iran to roll back its uranium enrichment program to deny it any ability to produce enough highly-enriched material for a bomb without the outside world being able to detect this in time.
(Reporting by Michelle Moghtader in Dubai and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, editing by Mark Heinrich)