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Middle East

Iran reveals nuclear advance as Netanyahu snubs US summit

Iran signalled its determination to press ahead with its nuclear programme last night by announcing it had developed faster centrifuges for enriching uranium "Iran's nuclear path is irreversible," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech in Tehran.

"The Iranian nation has reached a new point where no power can deter it from moving full-speed ahead to reach peaceful nuclear energy."

The head of Iran's nuclear programme Ali Akbar Salehi said on national television that the new third generation centrifuges had a separation capacity six times that of its first-generation technology.

The announcement raised the stakes for the US president Barack Obama who is seeking to rally international support to force Iran to abandon its atomic programme. Mr Obama will host a nuclear disarmament summit in Washington next week aimed at strengthening international co-operation to safeguard nuclear materials and fight nuclear terrorism. But efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions are certain to feature prominently.

Mr Obama's task has already been complicated by Turkey insisting it would it press for the nuclear disarmament of Israel as part of a nuclear-free Middle East even though Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has decided to shun the gathering.

Turkey's stance, confirmed yesterday by the foreign ministry in Ankara, is a further sign that the undeclared arsenal of the Jewish state, which analysts put at up to 200 warheads, is unlikely to disappear as an issue as Western powers try to force Iran to halt its uranium -enrichment programme, the key part of Tehran's widely suspected bid to acquire nuclear weapons.

Mr Netanyahu announced his decision not to attend amid reports that both Turkey and Egypt intended to use the 47-nation nuclear security summit to turn the spotlight on Israel. He will be replaced by Dan Meridor, his deputy and Israel's minister in charge of intelligence and atomic energy. .

"Recently we learnt some countries were going to use it [the conference] as a means to bash Israel," an official in Jerusalem said. But other sources contended that the Israeli prime minister was also staying away from Washington to avoid another confrontation with Mr Obama over his refusal to abandon settlement construction in East Jerusalem.

Officially, Jerusalem's nuclear policy is one of "ambiguity", coupled with the assurance that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. For its part, Washington has kept a strict silence on the question, even though most experts believe Israel is a nuclear power.

Yesterday, the White House downplayed Mr Netanyahu's absence. It will be more than made up for by the attendance of China's President Hu Jintao. "We obviously would like to have the prime minister, but the deputy prime minister will be leading the delegation, and it will be a robust Israeli delegation," General James Jones, Mr Obama's national security adviser, said as President Obama returned to Washington from Prague where he signed a nuclear arms reduction pact with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The conference is the latest of several events this year that Mr Obama hopes will bring his vision of a nuclear-free world, which he first outlined in a speech in the Czech capital in April 2009, a little nearer. This week the administration released an updated nuclear posture review, restricting the circumstances in which the US might use such weapons.

Next month, he goes to the UN for a conference to review the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, armed with evidence that established nuclear powers are cutting their arsenals. But the meeting is certain to see pressure by Arab states to force Israel to come clean on its own nuclear capabilities.