Iran has added 3,000 new-model uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz complex, increasing its low-enriched uranium manufacturing rate by half, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 14).
The Natanz site now contains 9,000 operational enrichment machines, Iran's Press TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. The United States and its allies have expressed concern that Iran could tap the enrichment process to generate nuclear-weapon material, but Tehran has insisted it would only produce atomic fuel for civilian applications (Press TV I, Feb. 15).
In a separate move, Iran on Wednesday inserted its initial domestically produced nuclear fuel rods into a medical isotope production reactor in Tehran. The Persian Gulf regional power has invoked the medical reactor in justifying its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a higher level of refinement than nuclear power systems require. The higher-enriched material also enables Iran to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent (Press TV II, Feb. 15).
Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi on Wednesday said Iran would launch in 2013 the production of additional uranium "yellowcake," an unrefined precursor material (Press TV III, Feb. 15).
Meanwhile, the Iranian Oil Ministry rejected as inaccurate official reports that Tehran had moved to end petroleum transfers to France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, Reuters reported.
"We deny this report. ... If such a decision is made, it will be announced by Iran's Supreme National Security Council," a ministry representative said (Parisa Hafezi, Reuters I, Feb. 15).
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned delegates from the six nations for talks on European Union penalties targeting Iran, focusing on a pending ban by the bloc on purchases of Iranian petroleum, Agence France-Presse reported (Agence France-Presse I/Now Lebanon, Feb. 15).
Iranian senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has replied to a communication from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on potentially resuming discussions between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, the Middle Eastern nation's Fars News Agency reported on Wednesday. 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 dispute (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011; Fars News Agency, Feb. 15).
Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano and two other high-level U.N. nuclear watchdog officials attended an event last Friday at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, Austria, Reuters reported.
Iranian news reports referred to the officials' participation as "positive," but Western envoys voiced skepticism that such statements presaged new concessions to a high-level IAEA delegation due to visit the country next Monday and Tuesday.
The IAEA officials "are making sure that they are not giving any excuse to Iran not to engage with them," a European envoy said (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, Feb. 15).
Iran has provided no indication that the IAEA delegation would be permitted to visit the Parchin military site, Reuters quoted Amano as saying on Tuesday.
Agency officials unsuccessfully attempted to view the site during a trip to Iran late last month, according to a previous report (see GSN, Feb. 3). The agency in November noted "serious concerns" that the Persian Gulf regional power was seeking a nuclear-weapon capacity, and suggested the Parchin site might have held a tank for performing explosive detonations relevant to such an effort (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011).
"We don't know yet" if Iran would permit the U.N. officials to travel to the site, Amano said.
"Parchin is not the only issue. Our objective is to clarify all the other issues and this cannot be done overnight but we hope that there will be a concrete outcome," he added.
"On our part we will continue to be taking a constructive approach and I expect an equally constructive approach on their part," Amano said (Mica Rosenberg, Reuters III, Feb. 14).
The European Union could finalize by next month restrictions on access by specific Iranian groups to an international fund transfer network, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The restrictions on access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication are a "done deal," one European official said. Legislation now under consideration in the United States could target the organization's leaders if they failed to take action against the Iranian groups (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15).
Talks slated for this week between EU delegates and SWIFT representatives are expected to prompt the financial network to cut off certain targeted financial institutions, but it was uncertain if the Iranian central bank would be among those affected, a U.S. government insider told the Associated Press.
The U.S. administration is seeking Iran's total expulsion from the financial group, AP reported (Anne Gearan, Associated Press/Google News, Feb. 14).
Malta and Cyprus intend in the near future to start striking blacklisted Iranian vessels from registries and conducting related checks on delivery arrangements, moves that would in practice bar the ships from Europe, Reuters reported on Wednesday (Saul/Grey, Reuters IV, Feb. 15).
The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines has undertaken sophisticated efforts to circumvent international trade restrictions targeting Iranian transfers of missiles, other armaments and atomic components, according to European governments and the United States (Reuters V, Feb. 15).
Japan and South Korea have offered only limited contributions to a U.S. campaign to curb Iranian petroleum sales, while China and India might expand oil imports from the Middle Eastern nation, AP reported on Wednesday (Peter Enav, Associated Press II/Boston Globe, Feb. 15).
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom on Tuesday said the United Nations is "in one of its crucial moments to try to implement its mandate by stopping the nuclear program of Iran," the Xinhua News Agency reported.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would confer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over Iran's atomic captivities, Shalom added (Xinhua News Agency, Feb.14).
"We would like to believe that these sanctions, if they are tough enough, will bring the Iranians maybe to give up" their controversial nuclear operations, AFP quoted the Israeli official as saying (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Feb. 14).
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday brushed off a Washington Post commentary asserting he had expressed an expectation that Israel would launch strikes on Iranian atomic facilities within months, CNN reported.
"I usually don't comment on columnists' ideas about what I'm thinking. Usually, it's a dangerous game to get into," Panetta said in congressional testimony. "I think as the president has suggested, I think we do not think Israel has made that decision."
The Pentagon chief avoided specifying whether his views had been reported inaccurately, adding he and Post columnist David Ignatius had "talked, but we talked about a lot of things, frankly."
Panetta said he had not intended to provide a related message to either Tehran or Jerusalem (Adam Levine, CNN, Feb. 14).
Asked if he held a stance on the probability of an Israeli strike against Iran taking place before this summer, Panetta said, "I do not," AP reported (Associated Press III/Boston Globe, Feb. 14).
Elsewhere, U.S. and European specialists said Iran had finished removing the Stuxnet malware from its computer systems, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The computer worm affected a number of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges going back to 2009 (Mark Hosenball, Reuters VI, Feb. 14).
Iran has added 3,000 new-model uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz complex, increasing its low-enriched uranium manufacturing rate by half, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday.