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Iran Intensifies Underground Uranium Work: Report

A 2009 satellite image of construction at Iran’s Qum facility. Tehran appears to be intensifying uranium enrichment activities already under way at the site, diplomats said on Monday (AP Photo/GeoEye Satellite Image). A 2009 satellite image of construction at Iran’s Qum facility. Tehran appears to be intensifying uranium enrichment activities already under way at the site, diplomats said on Monday (AP Photo/GeoEye Satellite Image).

Iran is thought to be bolstering uranium refinement efforts at its subterranean Qum complex, despite new steps by Western governments to rein in the Middle Eastern state's contested atomic activities, diplomats told Reuters on Monday (see GSN, Feb. 6).

One envoy said Iran had installed 348 additional uranium enrichment centrifuges arranged in two "cascades" at the mountain facility. The development would double the quantity of machines reported at the site last month (see GSN, Jan. 10).

"The second set of cascades is operational ... my understanding is they are both operational and (have) no problems," said the official in Vienna, Austria. A second envoy tied to the International Atomic Energy Agency alluded to intensifying operations at the Qum site, but provided no elaboration.

The Vienna-based U.N. organization last month confirmed the Qum complex to be generating 20-percent uranium. The higher-enriched material enables Iran to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent; Tehran has denied international assertions that it harbors nuclear-weapon ambitions and insists the material is intended for a medical isotope production reactor.

Western government insiders, though, have voiced skepticism over Iran's ability to produce the medical reactor fuel. In addition, they have suggested the Qum site can host a quantity of enrichment machines well-suited for military use but not atomic power applications, Reuters reported (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters I, Feb. 6).

Separately, a high-level IAEA team committed a significant portion of its third and final day of discussions with Iran last week to resisting the country's call for a "work plan" to address concerns over the nuclear program, Reuters reported on Monday (see GSN, Feb. 3). The discussions were intended to address specific measures Iran could take to resolve those issues; the agency in November noted "serious concerns" that the Persian Gulf regional power was seeking a nuclear-weapon capacity (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011).

The Iranian proposal, put forward at the end of the second day of meetings, contradicted principles underlying the U.N. nuclear watchdog group's prior focus on establishing specific expectations for Tehran, according to an informed diplomatic official in Vienna.

Personnel in Western governments described Iran's move as a negotiating ploy typical to the nation.

"It is delay. It is talks about talks," one high-level Western diplomat said. "The Iranians kept trying to push that 'work plan' and the agency was not going to go there. They had some very frank engagement."

A second envoy said the IAEA team "had to spend a great deal of time getting over Iranian obfuscation. It wasted a lot of time, at least a day."

Last week's talks yielded a preliminary "discussion paper" in which the U.N. team identified key concerns for Tehran to address, one envoy said. The document focuses on potential defense-related elements of Iranian uranium refinement efforts, the official said.

A follow-up IAEA trip to Iran is scheduled for later this month (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, Feb. 6).

A new round of U.S. penalties aimed at Iran's central bank and government was "an antagonistic move" that would prove ineffective, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

"It's psychological warfare which has no impact. ... There is nothing new, it has been going on for over 30 years," Reuters quoted spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.

"Sanctions will not have any impact on our nuclear course and they (the West) will not achieve their aims," the official added. "Our history has shown that sanctions, which are totally illogical, have accelerated our nation's progress."

Iran's legislature was set to advance a proposal to bar Iranian petroleum exports to specific European Union nations, lawmakers said on Tuesday. The 27-nation bloc last month finalized a six-month time line for prohibiting petroleum purchases from Iran.

"The draft bill has been almost finalized. It will oblige the government to immediately cut oil exports to the EU. The bill also will ban import of any goods from the EU," legislator Parviz Sarvari told Iran's Fars News Agency. The proposal had backing from most Iranian lawmakers, he said.

It was unclear when the legislature would reach a formal decision on the bill (Parisa Hafezi, Reuters III, Feb. 7).

The Obama administration said the newly announced penalties did not signal growing fears over the potential for Israeli armed action to curb Iran's nuclear activities, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

"There has been a steady increase in our sanctions activity and this is part of that escalation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

"There is no question that the impact of the isolation on Iran and the economic sanctions on Iran have caused added turmoil within Iran," Carney added (Anne Gearan, Associated Press I/Google News, Feb. 7).

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in talks on Monday addressed threats posed by Iran's atomic efforts as well as extremism and WMD proliferation, Agence France-Presse reported.

"They really focused on sanctions and, obviously, trying to get international players on board, particularly the Russians and the Chinese, and so you have a unified front in terms of sanctions," Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said.

The officials both believe penalties against Iran "need to continue to be pushed" and that Beijing and Moscow must be "much more on board" with Western countries on the matter, Fisher said.

Lieberman "indicated his appreciation to Senator Lugar for his strong position on the sanctions," Fisher added (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Feb. 6).

The U.S. penalties adopted against Tehran this week have a high chance of inhibiting Iranian business with Asian entities by complicating money transfers to the Middle Eastern nation, Reuters reported (Lucy Hornby, Reuters IV, Feb. 7).

Meanwhile, senior Turkish and Qatari officials on Sunday strongly discouraged any military attack on Iran, AP reported.

Qatari International Cooperation Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said Arab nations do not consider armed conflict an acceptable means of addressing the standoff.  "Knowing the region very well, I think this is not a solution," he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu added: "From our perspective the worst is the military option, the best is negotiations." Additional economic penalties could limit the prospects of any further atomic talks, he said.

"The military option will create a disaster in our region," Davutoglu added (Moulson/Rising, Associated Press II/Google News, Feb. 5).

"If there is strong political will and mutual confidence being established, this issue could be resolved in a few days," Iran's Mehr News Agency quoted him as saying. "The technical disputes are not so big" (Mehr News Agency, Feb. 6).

Any Israeli strike against Iran would require support from the Netanyahu administration's 15-minister Cabinet, Reuters reported on Monday (Heller/Williams, Reuters V, Feb. 6).

Jerusalem should carefully reflect on the economic and proliferation implications of a potential strike, Reuters on Sunday quoted Western analysts as saying.

"Whoever attacks Iran's nuclear infrastructure is really making a decision to go to war with Iran," said former U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt.

An attack could prompt Tehran to force IAEA officials out of the country and withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"There is not a country on Earth that is going to blame them for doing that, they are all going to blame Israel. Once Iran is out of the NPT, the sanctions are gone," said Ken Pollack, who heads the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy (William Maclean, Reuters VI, Feb. 5).

Specialists suggested Iran might press ahead in its nuclear efforts despite financial hardships created by international punitive measures, Reuters reported on Monday (Andrew Torchia, Reuters VII, Feb. 6).

Government insiders and academics in the United States have increasingly considered possible means to contain Iranian aggression should Tehran acquire a nuclear-weapon capacity, CNN reported on Monday (Amitai Etzioni, CNN, Feb. 6).

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