Iran has completed preliminary technical work that would allow it to expand rapidly its uranium enrichment programme at a highly protected mountain facility near the holy city of Qom, according to briefings given by western diplomats to the media over the weekend.

In a fresh sign of the progress Iran is making with its growing nuclear programme, the completion of this work would allow Iran to install thousands of new-generation centrifuges at the facility if it so chooses.

The briefings by diplomats, which were given to news outlets including the Associated Press and BBC, indicate potential progress that Iran could make at the site which is the main focus of Israeli concern about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Qom site is below a mountain and would be difficult for Israel to attack. Israel is concerned that this creates a “zone of immunity” for the Iranian programme, prompting speculation that Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear sites this year.

Until now, Iran has appeared cautious in developing the Qom uranium enrichment site. In October 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international watchdog, verified that Iran had installed 238 centrifuge machines at the site. In January 2012, Iran declared that Qom would soon begin enriching uranium, without giving further details.

The new information from diplomats – which comes ahead of publication at the end of the month of the latest IAEA report on Iran, indicates how quickly Qom could be expanded. According to AP, the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment for the installation of thousands of centrifuges are now in place.

IAEA inspectors arrived in Tehran on Monday for two days of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme but diplomats and analysts are playing down the likelihood of a breakthrough on what is their second visit this month.

Diplomats accredited to the IAEA expect little from the visit. They have indicated that Iran is still refusing to allow the agency experts to visit Parchin, the suspected site of explosives testing for a nuclear weapon, and had turned down other key requests made by the experts.

Iranian officials deny nuclear weapons aspirations, saying the claims are based on bogus intelligence from the US and Israel.

Mark Fitzpatrick, Iran analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that if the reports are true, then preparations for installing thousands of more advanced centrifuges at Fordow would “further inflame Israeli concerns that Iran’s nuclear programme is nearing an ‘immunity zone’”.

He added: “It would bring Iran significantly closer to being able to make a dash to produce a nuclear weapon. This may be why US defence secretary Leon Panetta recently forecast that Israel may launch pre-emptive strikes in the months ahead.”

Concerns about Iran’s progress come at a time when world powers are discussing how to respond to Iran’s recent offer of talks over its nuclear programme.

Tehran said last week that it was willing to engage in such talks and indicated on Sunday that these could be held in Istanbul. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said on Sunday that Iran has indicated “a new readiness to negotiate”, adding: “Whether that is going to be on any meaningful basis one has to be sceptical about.”

However, Mr Hague also said Israel should hold back from launching any strike on Iran at the moment. “I don’t think the wise thing at the moment is for Israel to launch a military strike,” he said. “I think Israel, like everyone else in the world, should be giving a real chance …to very serious economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure and the readiness to negotiate with Iran.”

Reflecting growing jitters that the Israelis are poised to strike, the US also urged Israel not to attack Iran's nuclear programme.

The US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, said an Israeli attack on Iran would have grave consequences for the entire region and urged Israel to give international sanctions against Iran more time to work.

“I believe it is unclear (that Iran would assemble a bomb) and on that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us,” Gen Dempsey said.

He said he was confident Israel knew that this was the general US attitude, but he stopped short of suggesting that the Americans had persuaded the Israelis that it was best not to attack Iran. “I'm confident that they (Israel) understand our concerns that a strike at this time would be destabilising and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” he said.

“I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view.”

One test of Iran’s approach will come on Monday when IAEA inspectors are scheduled to visit Tehran.

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