IAEA Verifies Uranium Enrichment at Second Iranian Centrifuge Site

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday verified that Iran had initiated production of 20 percent-enriched uranium at its underground Qum complex, the New York Times reported (seeGSN, Jan. 9).

“All nuclear material in the facility remains under the agency’s containment and surveillance,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in released remarks. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has monitored the site since its existence became publicly known in 2009.

Iran in 2010 began generating the higher-enriched uranium, enabling the nation to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon material, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent. Tehran has denied international assertions that its nuclear program is aimed at developing a nuclear-weapon capability, and insists the more refined material is intended to fuel a medical isotope production reactor.

The Qum facility’s activities would probably be detailed in a quarterly IAEA safeguards assessment expected near the end of February, according to the Times (William Broad, New York Times, Jan. 9).

“If they (Iranians) are enriching at [Qum] to 20 percent, this … is a further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations,” U.S. State Department representative Victoria Nuland said Monday.

“We call on Iran once again to suspend enrichment activities, cooperate fully with the IAEA and immediately comply with all [U.N.] Security Council and IAEA  Board of Governors resolutions,” Agence France-Presse quoted Nuland as saying.

“This development, given their track record and what the IAEA inspectors have been able to report, it’s not a surprise to us what we’re hearing,” the spokeswoman said. The production of 20 percent-enriched uranium “generally tends to indicate that you’re enriching to a level that takes you to a different kind of a nuclear program,” she added (Agence France-Presse I/ABS-CBN News, Jan. 10).

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the new enrichment “a provocative act which further undermines Iran’s claims that its program is entirely civilian in nature,” AFP reported (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Jan. 9).

The Middle Eastern nation’s “claim to be enriching for the Tehran Research Reactor does not stand up to serious scrutiny,” the Associated Press quoted Hague as saying in released remarks. The country “already has sufficient enriched uranium to power the reactor for more than five years and has not even installed the equipment necessary to manufacture fuel elements” with the refined material, he added (George Jahn, Associated Press I/Google News, Jan. 9).

France decried the transfer of uranium enrichment operations to new facility as a “particularly grave violation by Iran of international law,” and said the development offers “no choice but to strengthen international sanctions and to adopt, with our European partners and all willing countries, measures of an unprecedented scale and severity” (Agence France-Presse III/Breitbart.com, Jan. 9).

Germany added that “the international community’s concern that the Iranian nuclear program is serving military purposes is growing,” AFP reported.

Independent analysts expressed similar alarm over the Iranian milestone.

Tehran’s move “clearly represents an escalation,” said Mark Hibbs, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Israel, which has already warned Iran that it could take military action against installations is very very worried by this facility. … We are moving into dangerous territory.”

The development “is worrisome because 20 percent is so close to being weapons-usable and because there is absolutely no civilian need for it now,” former U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said.

“It brings them closer to being able to quickly produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon,” said Fitzpatrick, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London (Agence France-Presse II).

Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright said Iranian leaders “appear to have taken the decision to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, but not a decision to build the bomb. And that means that they can be dissuaded from doing that.”

Hibbs expressed a similar position.

“Because of the opaque nature of leadership in Iran and the lack of deep knowledge on how the leadership is thinking, this escalation could represent an effort by Iran to stake out a tough negotiating position,” the analyst said (Agence France-Presse III).

Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, though, on Tuesday said responses in the United States and Europe to the new enrichment were “exaggerated and politically motivated,” the London Telegraph reported (London Telegraph, Jan. 10).

“All nuclear activities, notably uranium enrichment at Natanz and [Qum], are under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” AFP quoted the official, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, as saying on Monday (Agence France-Presse IV/Times of India, Jan. 9).

Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was expected to discuss Iran’s atomic activities on Monday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, according to Turkish diplomatic insiders (Agence France-Presse V/Now Lebanon, Jan 9).

The top Turkish diplomat said Iran had communicated its readiness to rejoin multilateral discussions on its atomic efforts, United Press International reported on Monday. It has been a year since the last such talks between Iran, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany (United Press International, Jan. 9).

European Union nations on Tuesday decided to convene their top diplomats on Jan. 23, seven days sooner than previously planned, for discussions anticipated to finalize sanctions prohibiting imports of petroleum from Iran, Reuters reported.

Governments within the 27-nation bloc have achieved consensus on the planned ban, but they had yet to agree on the specifics of its implementation. An EU discussion on Monday yielded no clear progress on the matter, envoys said. Additional talks are anticipated this week (David Brunnstrom, Reuters I, Jan. 10).

One expert said China would probably not participate in efforts to isolate Iran’s petroleum sector, AP reported. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was set to meet with top officials in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday to seek Chinese backing for such measures.

Nearly 33 percent of shipped Iranian oil goes to China.

“China has no reason to go along with this,” Peking University expert Wang Lian said. “China does not want to be seen as helping the U.S. when China’s own interest is concerned” (Joe McDonald, Associated Press II/Google News, Jan. 10).

Former Chinese Ambassador to Iran Hua Liming added: “Iran will expect China to support its interests at the U.N. and other international circumstances, while the U.S. will exert tremendous pressure on China and use the Iran issue to judge if China is a ‘responsible’ major power.”

“China will need to strike a balance in this dilemma,” Reuters quoted the former official as saying.

“What I can say for sure is China is not going to sacrifice its national economic interest in answer to a big power,” he said, adding his country believed it had sacrificed its interests in endorsing four U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions targeting Iran’s nuclear efforts.

“The previous rounds of sanctions have already hit China. Our top energy firms’ business in Iran has skidded nearly to a halt,” Hua said.

“If you look back on all the U.S. sanction[s] since World War II, there has been no such precedent that you can force a nation to surrender through sanctions. Especially countries like Iran,” he added.

“The West has an illusion that a pro-West regime would give up the nuclear plan. But in Iran, no matter which regime comes to power, they will not give up,” he said. “To become a nuclear power is many Iranians’ dream of a strong nation.”

Hua added: “I don’t think the U.S. is hopeful of winning support from the Security Council for the new round of sanctions” (Chen Aihzu, Reuters II, Jan. 10).

South Korea is preparing for a potential decrease in its petroleum purchases from Iran, an official in Seoul told the Yonhap News Agency on Sunday.

“Unlike other countries, our country’s oil imports from Iran increased over [2011]. It won’t be difficult to return the volume back to the level of [2010],” the official said (Yonhap News Agency, Jan. 8).

Japan and the European Union are also preparing for cutbacks in Iranian oil, Reuters reported (Hafezi/Dahl, Reuters III, Jan. 10).

Elsewhere, the United States on Monday said its military had seen no indications that Iran is getting ready to obstruct the strategic Strait of Hormuz, AFP reported. Tehran has threatened to block the strait, a key waterway for the shipment of Middle Eastern petroleum, in retaliation to a possible Iranian oil embargo.

“We would have some knowledge of an intent to actively impede maritime traffic to the Strait of Hormuz. We don’t see any active steps being taken by the Iranians to close the strait,” Defense Department spokesman George Little said.

“We really do want to ratchet down the tensions surrounding the Strait of Hormuz. This is an important waterway for the region and for Iran itself,” the official added (Agence France-Presse VI/Google News, Jan. 9).

In Venezuela, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played down assertions that his country has nuclear weapons ambitions, AP reported.

“They say we’re making (a) bomb,” the Iranian leader said through an interpreter. “Fortunately, the majority of Latin American countries are alert. Everyone knows that those words … are a joke. It’s something to laugh at,” Ahmadinejad said. “It’s clear they’re afraid of our development.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Washington and European capitals were employing inaccurate assertions over Iran atomic activities “like they used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to do what they did in Iraq” (Ian James, Associated Press III/Time, Jan. 10).

In Israel, an analysis suggests an Iranian nuclear test would significantly alter political dynamics in the region, AFP reported on Tuesday.

The United States would probably offer security guarantees to Israel while cautioning against direct action, according to the assessment by the Institute for National Security Studies. Moscow would pursue a collaborative effort with the United States to prevent the further spread of nuclear arms in the region, while Saudi Arabia would probably establish an independent atomic initiative, the analysis states.

“The simulation showed that Iran will not forgo nuclear weapons, but will attempt to use them to reach an agreement with the major powers that will improve its position,” the London Timesquoted the document as saying.

“The simulation showed that (the Israeli military option), or the threat of using it, would also be relevant following an Iranian nuclear test,” it states (Agence France-Presse VII/The Australian, Jan. 10).

President Obama is ready to order military action to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb if economic pressure and negotiations prove inadequate, a former Obama administration adviser on the Middle East told Bloomberg on Monday.

The president has “made it very clear” that he has deemed an Iranian nuclear weapon to pose such a significant danger that “the Iranians should never think that there’s a reluctance to use the force” to prevent it, Dennis Ross said in an interview. “There are consequences if you act militarily, and there’s big consequences if you don’t act,” he said (Indira Lakshmanan,Bloomberg, Jan. 10).

One high-level U.S. government source, though, told CNN that the United States has established no firm threshold for employing armed force against Iran.

“The precise step at which action might be taken is not defined. It’s a complex set of variables,” CNN on Monday quoted the insider as saying (Barbara Starr, CNN, Jan. 9).

Separately, the United States denounced a death sentence Iran has given to a purported U.S.-born CIA informant, the Washington Post reported.

“We strongly condemn this verdict,” Nuland said.

“Allegations that [one-time U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati] either worked for or was sent to Iran by the CIA are simply untrue,” the State Department spokeswoman said. “The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons” (Erdbrink/Warrick, Washington Post, Jan. 9).