Iran Pushing to Upgrade Enrichment Gear: IAEA

A forthcoming International Atomic Energy Agency report asserts Iran is pushing to replace thousands of its uranium enrichment centrifuges with newer carbon-fiber machines capable of operating five times faster than their predecessors, the Wall Street Journal reported today (see GSN, Feb. 17).

Iran was purging electronics from its Natanz uranium enrichment complex and other atomic facilities after what appears to be an unsuccessful attempt to locate the origin of the Stuxnet computer worm infecting the sites, said diplomats with knowledge of the “militarization report” requested by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. Moving in new equipment might take as long as two years, the diplomats said.

Deploying its experimental carbon-fiber in large numbers could enable Iran to produce sufficient material for a nuclear weapon in under 12 weeks, Germany determined in an official assessment. The United States and its allies have expressed concern that Iran’s uranium enrichment program could generate nuclear-weapon material; Tehran has insisted its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful (David Crawford,Wall Street Journal, Feb. 18).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department yesterday blacklisted an Iranian bank believed to be supporting the organization managing the Middle Eastern nation’s ballistic missile program, Agence France-Presse reported.

Iran’s Bank Refah enabled the Iranian Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry to complete arms-relevant acquisitions valued in millions of dollars. The State Department hit the Iranian military entity with sanctions in October 2007.

“These purchases included missiles and tanks and enabled Iran’s leadership to maintain its fighter jets and submarines.” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

Bank Refah also did business with Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Co., a group the Treasury Department targeted in September 2008 because it assisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and it was owned or operated by the Iranian Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry.

The bank “facilitated payments from [Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Co.] to businesses and individuals linked to Iran’s weapons-related procurement,” the department said.

Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey in the press release said his department “has now exposed and sanctioned 20 banks owned by the government of Iran for supporting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs or terrorism.”

“The pervasiveness of this illicit conduct explains why legitimate financial institutions everywhere are deciding to shun Iranian banks,” Levey said (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Feb. 17).

The penalties would bar U.S. organizations from doing business with the Iranian bank while seeking to halt movement of any holdings the financial institution has under U.S. control, Reuters reported. The European Union adopted punitive measures against Bank Refah last July (see GSN, July 26, 2010; Corbett Daly,Reuters, Feb. 17).

Elsewhere, Iran indicated its Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant was undergoing its last examination before starting operation, the nation’s Fars News Agency reported.

“Many important parts of the plant have already been inaugurated in the past six months and many activities have been launched. Other units are currently undergoing a test run for an eventual launch,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told the Islamic Republic News Agency. “The reactor cap in the Bushehr plant has been shut and everything is ready to produce electricity in the near future.”

Salehi said the project has advanced in a “very appropriate and satisfactory” manner and that Tehran was maintaining consistent contact with Russia, which has constructed the facility.

The facility is slated by April to begin generating electricity for consumer use, the official said in January (Fars News Agency, Feb. 17).