Iran has achieved a landmark, with 3,000 centrifuges fully working in its controversial uranium enrichment program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday.

"We have now reached 3,000 machines," Ahmadinejad told thousands of Iranians gathered in Birjand, in eastern Iran, in a show of defiance of international demands to halt the program believed to be masking the country's nuclear arms efforts.

Ahmadinejad has in the past claimed that Iran succeeded in installing the 3,000 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. But Wednesday's claim was his first official statement that the plant is now fully operating all those centrifuges.

When Iran first announced launching the 3,000 centrifuges in April, the UN nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran had only 328 centrifuges up and running at Natanz's underground facility.

Italian Premier Romano Prodi said Tuesday that Iran has every right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, while the international community has an equal right to verify its peaceful nature using the existing judicial measures.

In a speech delivered to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, on a visit to Rome, Prodi also said that Italy opposes any military action against Iran over Tehran's contentious nuclear program because such an attack could destabilize the entire Middle East.

Italy, as of this year a non-permanent member of the UN. Security Council, traditionally has good relations with Tehran and maintains a strong presence in Iran's gas market through Italian oil and gas giant Eni SpA.

Senior government officials, including the foreign minister, have spoken out against any use of force against Iran, saying that a new war in the region would be disastrous and calling instead for increased diplomatic efforts.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, but its assertions are widely disbelieved.

The Security Council has demanded that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment -a potential pathway both to generating nuclear power and creating the fissile core of warheads.

Iran could face further sanctions if upcoming reports by the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency do not show improved Iranian cooperation.

Germany's Merkel reaffirms readiness to impose new sanctions on Iran Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday reaffirmed Germany's readiness to back tougher sanctions against Iran if it fails to back down in the dispute over its nuclear ambitions.

Before a weekend visit to U.S. President George W. Bush's Texas ranch, Merkel also stressed her commitment to a diplomatic resolution of the issue.

Germany, along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has been at the forefront of efforts to address concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

The Security Council has demanded that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment - a potential pathway both to generating nuclear power and creating the fissile core of warheads.

Iran could face further sanctions if upcoming reports by the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency do not show improved Iranian cooperation.

In her acceptance speech for the Leo Baeck Prize - the highest honor of Germany's Central Council of Jews - Merkel stressed the special historic responsibility of Germany for the security and existence of Israel.

"I am aware that, in view of the threat to Israel from Iran's nuclear program, these cannot remain empty words," she said.

"We are looking, together with our partners, for a diplomatic solution," Merkel said. "Part of that is that Germany, if Iran does not give way, is prepared for further and tougher sanctions."

Merkel said that she would discuss Iran, as well as prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, during her meeting with Bush.