Envoys and issue specialists have described seeming progress by Iran in constructing a heavy-water reactor with the potential to generate nuclear weapon-usable plutonium, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Iran's Arak reactor site was previously scheduled to begin operations in 2014, but it is now tentatively slated to launch between July and September of next year, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in an August safeguards assessment. Tehran was deploying "cooling and moderator circuit piping" at the reactor when IAEA officials traveled to the site shortly into last month, the U.N. nuclear watchdog stated.
The United States, Israel and several European nations suspect Iran's nuclear program is geared toward development of a weapon capability, but Tehran insists its atomic operations are strictly nonmilitary in nature. The Middle Eastern nation's refinement of uranium at its Natanz and Qum sites has emerged as a primary focal point for international concerns, according to Reuters; the enrichment process can yield atomic material for peaceful uses as well as the fissile ingredient for nuclear armaments.
The Arak facility would be able to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs by reprocessing used atomic material, according to specialists. An independent analytical group in Washington has said the site under ideal conditions could annually generate 19.8 pounds of plutonium, a quantity sufficient to power roughly a pair of weapons.
"Before it could use any of the plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, it would first have to separate the plutonium from the irradiated fuel," the Institute for Science and International Security added in a written assessment. The group in 2011 said Tehran had said it does not intend to carry out such atomic material separation.
Still, developments at the Arak facility have bolstered Western worries over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, according to Reuters.
India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan have produced plutonium for use in nuclear arms by tapping "similarly sized reactors ostensibly built for research," one-time U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said.
He suggested Iran seems unlikely to launch the facility within its goal period when taking into account the nation's "record of delays with other major nuclear facilities and the sanctions and export controls that have impeded access to foreign parts."
One envoy, though, said Tehran is "certainly continuing to make progress on the [Arak] reactor."
"As long as we still don't trust Iran's nuclear intentions, even the elimination of its enrichment capability will not eliminate all the danger," added the official in Vienna, Austria.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specialist Mark Hibbs said "there is no reason to seriously doubt Iran's resolve to complete this project on time and begin operating the reactor."
Hibbs said Tehran would primarily require "dual-use, off-the-shelf equipment [available] all over the world using the procurement network it has set up" in support of its atomic activities.
Meanwhile, authorities in Iran have gathered more proof of efforts to undermine operations at atomic facilities and other locations in the country, the New York Times quoted the Iranian Intelligence Ministry as saying on Tuesday.
The signs point to the inclusion of malicious electronic programs in systems from France, Germany and the United States, the ministry said in comments published by Iran's Fars News Agency. The intelligence office provided no additional elaboration on the technological means for carrying out such strikes or on focuses of the alleged offensive efforts.
Tehran made certain gear publicly viewable “to show American, French and German equipment used for sabotage acts against Iran’s vital and important facilities,” according to the Iranian media organization. The move lacked precedent and was aimed at demonstrating ministry progress in “discovering and defusing the plots hatched by the enemies,” Fars News added.
The news agency neither released pictures of the viewable systems nor specified their location.
Elsewhere, the European Union is poised to further target Iranian monetary and business operations through new economic penalties, Reuters quoted French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as saying on Tuesday.
"(The sanctions will be) on the financial and trade side," the top French diplomat stated.
The moves would follow the July implementation of an EU embargo on imports of unrefined petroleum from Iran, as well as Washington's adoption earlier this year of punitive steps against business partners of the country's central bank. No substantive moves to defuse the nuclear standoff have come as a result of the measures, according to Reuters.
Fabius suggested the planned EU penalties could hit Iran's central bank. "It could be that. (Those sanctions) are not fully exhausted," he stated.
An envoy tied to the 27-nation bloc said "most member states are largely supportive" of a potential penalties package recommended by the United Kingdom, Agence France-Presse reported. Tehran's commerce, energy, financial, and transit operations would be targets of the British proposal, and comparable elements are contained in a Dutch plan, AFP reported.
The most severe steps sought by London are a "full freeze on Iran's central bank, on all its financial transactions," and "a wide sectorial ban on shipping," an EU international relations official said.
An envoy said bloc members including Spain and Sweden feared the submission would be equivalent to a comprehensive embargo on business with Iran, "but it is not." The official said Berlin and Paris also "needed reassuring."
Limiting restrictions on business with Iran was a goal during the development of EU penalties now in force against the Iranian central bank, according to AFP.
The requested transportation restrictions have prompted fears in Athens and Copenhagen, the news agency reported.
An insider added: "The discussions are ongoing, there is still a long way to go."
The potential for a "cyber war" poses a greater threat to Iran than the possibility of a conventional conflict, Revolutionary Guard ground forces deputy commander Abdollah Araqi said on Tuesday in comments reported by Reuters.
"We have armed ourselves with new tools, because a cyber war is more dangerous than a physical war," the Iranian Students' News Agency quoted Araqi as saying.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday said "arms race and intimidation by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction by the hegemonic powers have become prevalent," CNN reported.
"Continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality," he added in an address to the U.N. General Assembly. Ahmadinejad was referring to discussions in Israel of a potential armed strike against his country's atomic assets.
Speaking earlier, the Iranian president said his nation could re-establish relations with Washington under certain conditions, Fars News reported on Tuesday.
"If the U.S. administration takes a step to create understanding between the two states, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to rethink its negative mentality of the U.S. and help improve the relations between the two countries faster," he said.
"Everyone is aware the nuclear issue is the imposition of the will of the United States," the Associated Press quoted him as saying on Tuesday. "I see the nuclear issue as a nonissue. It has become a form of one-upmanship."
Ahmadinejad said he was "not dismissing" the potential for bilateral talks with Washington.
“Iran is entitled to domestic uranium enrichment,” he added on Monday in remarks reported by the Christian Science Monitor. “It is a legitimate right. ... And what rights do you have if you do not use them?”
Diplomats from governments engaging Iran in atomic dialogue have said they do not believe Tehran has been pursuing nuclear arms production, the Iranian president said. Still, the U.N. nuclear watchdog has issued "illegal requests," and its number of demands has "only gotten longer and longer," he said.
Iran lacks credibility in asserting its nuclear intentions are purely peaceful, former President Bill Clinton told CNN.
"What they're really saying is, in spite of the fact that we deny the Holocaust, that we threaten Israel, and we demonize the United States, and we do all this stuff, we want you to trust us," Clinton said. "They don't have a tenable position."
"Why isn't (Ahmadinejad) going for some bigger nonproliferation initiative instead of acting like what he really wants is a nuclear bomb because that will help to get everybody get rid of their nuclear weapons?" he added in remarks to the network. "No serious person believes that."
An new unmanned aerial vehicle displayed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard on Tuesday is reportedly suited to reach Israel and a majority of other points in the Persian Gulf region, Reuters reported.
The Shahed 129 aircraft can fly as far as 1,240 miles, and it can transport missiles and explosives, according to Iranian government television.
"By taking this step the government of America must be held accountable for the blood of thousands of Iranians and Iraqis assassinated by members" of the organization People's Mujahedeen, Iran's Mehr News Agency on Wednesday quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.