IAEA Team to Return to Iran in February

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Wednesday said it would send representatives to Iran later this month for another round of discussions intended to address questions over the country’s nuclear program (see GSN, Feb. 1).

The next meeting in Tehran, slated for Feb. 21-22, would follow three days of talks that ended on Tuesday between high-level IAEA officials and Iranian government representatives. The U.N. nuclear watchdog said it had outlined its questions and goals related to eliminating ambiguities over potential defense-related elements of Iran’s atomic activities.

The agency in November noted “serious concerns” that the Persian Gulf regional power was seeking a nuclear-weapon capacity; Tehran insists its atomic activities are strictly nonmilitary in nature (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011).

The Vienna, Austria-based organization conferred with Iran on “the topics and initial steps to be taken” to resolve the matter, “as well as associated modalities,” according to an IAEA press release.

“The agency is committed to intensifying dialogue. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in the statement (International Atomic Energy Agency release, Feb. 1).

No major developments took place in the most recent discussions between the sides, informed envoys told the Washington Post on Wednesday.

Despite their congenial atmosphere, this week’s exchanges yielded no rationale for apparent nuclear-bomb design studies conducted by Iran, according to the sources.

“This was just a start,” a European envoy said (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, Feb. 1).

“It does seem to us that there has just been no indication of any substantive progress during this meeting, that Iran was very focused on process and modalities and not engaging the IAEA on answering the questions or providing the information and access that they have been asking for,” one diplomatic source told Reuters.

The three-day trip involved “long, intensive discussions about procedures, issues, but no discussion on concrete issues,” according to another source in Vienna. Nonetheless, “some headway” was made toward initiating additional discussions that might prove more concrete, the envoy said.

Tehran reportedly rejected a request by the IAEA team to visit the Parchin armed forces installation, which was cited in the November agency safeguards report (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters I, Feb. 2).

“This visit will be judged by whether the Iranians provided the visiting IAEA team with cooperation on substantive issues. Anything short of that type of cooperation is not acceptable,” a diplomat told Reuters.

Agency safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts, who led this week’s mission, offered grounds for optimism by referring to plans for a second trip, former U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said.

“The IAEA would not be scheduling another trip unless they had an expectation of progress in clearing away at least some of the questions about suspicious past nuclear activity,” the expert said (Michael Shields, Reuters II, Feb. 1).

Iran should rule out further visits by the U.N. nuclear watchdog team if it releases an “unrealistic report” on Iranian atomic efforts to “mislead the global community,” the nation’s Press TV quoted Mostafa Kavakebian, a member of the Iranian parliament national security body, as saying on Tuesday (Press TV, Jan. 31).

Meanwhile, Israel’s military intelligence chief on Thursday said Iran possesses sufficient 20 percent-enriched uranium to fuel four nuclear weapons if the material is refined further, Ynetnews reported. Bomb-grade uranium has an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent.

“Iran is vigorously pursing military nuclear capabilities and today the intelligence community agrees with Israel on that. Iran has over 4 tons of enriched materials and nearly 100 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium — that’s enough for four bombs,” Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said at an event in Tel Aviv.

Iran’s atomic ambitions are aimed at establishing its dominance over neighboring states, dissuading foreign aggression and bolstering the nation’s role in the surrounding area, Kochavi said.

“We have conclusive evidence that they are after nuclear weapons,” he said, adding Iran’s atomic infrastructure would have little significance in its eventual determination on potentially assembling a nuclear bomb.

“When [Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] gives the order to produce the first nuclear weapon — it will be done, we believe, within one year,” the official said.

Economic penalties, domestic setbacks and other issues “have yet to result in a change in Iranian strategy, but if they intensify they might lead to change, because the most important thing to them is the regime’s sustainability,” Kochavi said (Neri Brenner, Ynetnews, Feb. 2).

Speaking at the same event, Israeli armed forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Wednesday said Jerusalem should be “willing to deploy” its defense capabilities because Iran might be 12 months away from gaining a nuclear-weapon capacity, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

“There is no doubt that Iran is striving for a bomb,” Gantz said, adding that those efforts “must be disrupted” (Ferziger/Lerman, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 2).

The officer called on other countries to maintain punitive steps against Iran, which he said are “starting to show progress,” the Associated Press reported (George Jahn, Associated Press I/Google News, Feb. 1).

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon on Thursday indicated that the use of armed force could be successful in eliminating Iranian nuclear facilities, AP reported.

“At the end of the day it’s possible to strike all the installations,” he said.

Other Israeli defense sources and issue experts have questioned the ability to wipe out Iran’s hardened and subterranean atomic sites, AP reported (Karin Laub, Associated Press II/Boston.com, Feb. 2).

Former CIA Director James Woolsey backed suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear armaments.

“To believe anything other than that Iran is working to get a nuclear weapon is hopelessly naive,” Woolsey told the Jerusalem Post at the gathering in Tel Aviv.

“At some point someone is going to have to decide to use force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I’d argue that those who say we can deal adequately with Iran through deterrence are quite naive,” he said.

“National survival is at issue. In the near term that’s the case for Israel, but in the somewhat longer term it is (the case) for the U.S., which from Iran’s point of view, is the ‘Great Satan,’” Woolsey added (Oren Kessler, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 2).

Iran by June could acquire the 85 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium necessary for a 15-kiloton bomb, and it could then refine the material to weapon grade in roughly 10 weeks, according to an assessment published on Monday by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. Other experts have suggested Iran would require no less than 12 months to accumulate sufficient material for a bomb, the Christian Science Monitor reported (Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 2).

In Beijing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday said China should throw its weight into convincing Tehran to abandon its disputed atomic efforts, Reuters reported. The European Union last week finalized a six-month time line for prohibiting petroleum purchases from Iran.

During a three-day trip to China, Merkel was set to press for the harsher Iran penalties put forward by Washington. The German leader said she had previously carried out “long discussions” with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on punitive measures against Iran.

“If we talk about the European sanctions against Iran, the question is how China can make better use of its influence to make Iran understand that the world must not have another power with nuclear weapons,” Merkel said.

She expressed a wish for the U.N. Security Council to address the issue through a measure backed by all of its members (Hornby/Rinke, Reuters III, Feb. 2).

Merkel on Thursday added that her country hopes to join new talks with Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations. The six powers convened talks with Tehran on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving the nuclear dispute (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011; Andreas Rinke,Reuters IV, Feb. 2).

U.S. and Japanese diplomats are conducting talks in Washington on compliance with measures targeting Iran, the U.S. State Department indicated on Wednesday in remarks reported by the Xinhua News Agency.

“The United States and Japan reaffirm their shared interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the importance of a dual-track strategy in dealing with Iran: both pressure and engagement, to persuade Iran to address the international community’ s serious concerns about its nuclear program,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said (Xinhua News Agency, Feb. 2).

Tokyo has pledged to expedite curbs in its purchases of Iranian petroleum to meet recently enacted U.S. legal mandates, but the sides have yet to settle on the pace of the decrease in imports, the Atlantic magazine reported on Wednesday. Factors of importance in the discussion include replacement of Iranian petroleum with oil from other sources, protection of Japanese financial institutions and satisfaction of political interests within Japan (Sheila Smith,The Atlantic, Feb. 1).

Iran would slash government expenses by 5.6 percent and seek to lower reliance on petroleum exports under a yearly national spending plan presented on Wednesday to Iranian lawmakers, the Associated Press reported. Iran’s next budget cycle begins on March 20 (Ali Akbar Dareini, Associated Press III/Google News, Feb. 1).

Separately, Iranians have succeeded in evading international restrictions on weapons transfers through the use of cargo vessels registered with other governments, AP quoted the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as saying in a report published this week (Jahn, Associated Press I).