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Iran to Continue Sensitive Uranium Enrichment, Top Atomic Official Says

Iran’s Qum uranium enrichment complex, shown under construction in 2009. A top Iranian atomic official on Sunday said his government would not end production of 20 percent-enriched uranium, despite international concerns that the material could facilitate generation of nuclear-bomb fuel (AP Photo/GeoEye). Iran’s Qum uranium enrichment complex, shown under construction in 2009. A top Iranian atomic official on Sunday said his government would not end production of 20 percent-enriched uranium, despite international concerns that the material could facilitate generation of nuclear-bomb fuel (AP Photo/GeoEye).

Iran plans to continue enriching uranium to 20 percent, a top atomic official said in televised remarks days after six major governments pressed the Middle Eastern nation to end the higher-level enrichment to help placate international fears that its atomic activities are geared toward establishment of a nuclear-weapon capability (see GSN, May 25).

“We have no reason to retreat from producing the 20 percent, because we need 20 percent uranium just as much to meet our needs,” Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi said on Sunday in comments reported by the New York Times. His remarks indicate Tehran might be again be assuming a less flexible stance after two days of discussions with world powers concluded poorly on Thursday, according to the newspaper.

At last week's meeting in Baghdad, representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States offered Iran medical reactor fuel and other incentives to end the higher-level enrichment. Tehran has been generating 20 percent-enriched uranium for the stated purpose of operating the reactor, but Washington and other capitals fear the material could facilitate generation of weapon-grade material, which requires an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent. Tehran has insisted its nuclear activities are strictly peaceful.

Prior to last week's talks in Iraq, Abbasi had suggested Iran could be persuaded to halt higher refinement of uranium (Thomas Erdbrink, New York Times, May 27).

Iranian news agencies misinterpreted remarks by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to suggest the nation might still halt 20 percent uranium production, Agence France-Presse quoted the official as saying on Tuesday (Agence France-Presse I/Now Lebanon, May 29).

Separately, Abbasi said the International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to provide sufficient justification for access to Iran's Parchin armed forces facility, the country's Fars News Agency reported. Officials with the agency have repeatedly sought access to a site at the base suspected to have housed equipment relevant to a potential nuclear-weapon development effort.

"No documents or reason has been presented to us" to make an adequate case for opening the location to international scrutiny, the official said on Saturday.

"The agency is interested in visiting Parchin due to pressure from countries that want the agency to investigate the issue," Abbasi said. "If we enter another country, would they allow us to visit (inspect) wherever we want?"

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization possesses "no site in Parchin," he said.

"Parchin has been repeatedly accused (by the IAEA of running suspected military nuclear activities) despite the fact that it has gone under inspection in the past," according to the official. "Our military commanders are rational people (and would allow IAEA access to Parchin if they are presented with a good reasoning), but the point is that we in the Atomic Energy (Organization of Iran) have not been convinced by the IAEA inspectors of the goal of such a visit" (Fars News Agency, May 27).

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency minimized the U.N. nuclear watchdog's recently announced discovery of tiny quantities of uranium with enrichment levels as high as 27 percent at the nation's subterranean Qum facility, Reuters reported.

"This matter is a routine technical discussion that is currently being reviewed by experts," Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said in comments carried on Saturday by the Islamic Republic News Agency. The U.N. organization noted the finding in an assessment issued on Friday (Marcus George, Reuters I, May 26).

Iran informed the Vienna, Austria-based agency that such excessive enrichment "may happen for technical reasons beyond the operator's control," according to the safeguards document.

U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said "there are a number of possible explanations for this, including the one that the Iranians have provided."

"We are going to depend on the IAEA to get to the bottom of it," she said (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, May 25).

The broader IAEA analysis "once again proves to the international community that all Iranian nuclear activities are successfully under way and are uninterrupted, and that there is no diversion in Iran's nuclear material towards military objectives," AFP quoted Soltanieh as saying.

The document offers "more proof of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities and of our country's success in the field of nuclear technology, in particular enrichment, and its full cooperation with the agency," he told official Iranian television on Friday (Agence France-Presse II/Hindustan Times, May 26).

The IAEA assessment indicates Iran now holds sufficient low-enriched uranium to fuel five nuclear bombs should it refine the material further, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said on Friday. The Middle Eastern nation has generated 13,662 pounds of the material, including 1,645 pounds since Feb. 4, the U.N. agency said (Institute for Science and International Security release, May 25).

The nation had manufactured 320 pounds of material enriched to 20 percent. That could power its medical reactor for 20 years; pressing for additional material boosts concerns about its plans, according to the New York Times (Erdbrink, Times).

Iran's noted acceleration of uranium refinement hints at progress in restoring operations following a number of equipment problems, including issues produced by a previous computer-based strike, the Washington Post reported on Friday.

“The machines seem to be operating better, and overall they’re enriching more efficiently,” ISIS head David Albright told the newspaper.

Armaments specialists said Iran would probably gain diplomatic leverage at next month's multilateral discussions in Moscow over indications of increased activities at the Qum site.

“Iran is dealing itself more cards for the negotiations,” nuclear expert Joshua Pollack said. “The West is piling on sanctions while they’re adding more (centrifuges) underground. We’ll see who blinks first” (Joby Warrick, Washington Post I, May 25).

The likelihood of compromise in the atomic dispute could diminish as a result of efforts by Western governments to increase Iran's economic isolation, Reuters quoted Mehmanparast as saying on Tuesday.

"This approach of pressure concurrent with negotiations will never work. These countries should not enter negotiations with such illusions and misinterpretations," the official said. "They have their own wrong conceptions and this will stop them from coming to a speedy and constructive agreement" (Marcus George, Reuters III, May 29).

A spokesman on Friday said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "strongly supports" steps by the six world powers to peacefully end the Iranian atomic standoff, AFP reported.

The U.N. chief "hopes that Iran will take the necessary measures to build and sustain international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program," spokesman Martin Nesirky said, adding "the secretary general is encouraged by the willingness of both sides to continue engaging in discussions to resolve the differences" (Agence France-Presse III/Now Lebanon, May 25).

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, though, on Tuesday said last week's meeting produced "no significant achievement except for the Iranians having been given another three weeks or so to pursue the nuclear project until the next meeting in Moscow," Reuters reported.

"To my regret, I don't see any sense of urgency, and perhaps it is even in the interest of some players in the West to stretch out the time, which would certainly square with the Iranian interest," Yaalon told Israeli army radio.

"Even when faced with lesser demands, the Iranians have yet to respond positively," the official said.

Though an escalation of punitive steps against Iran is necessary, "we have not even reached that stage in the talks," Yaalon added. "Instead, we roll the matter from meeting to meeting" (Dan Williams, Reuters IV, May 29).

A high-level Israeli insider on Monday said the meeting was intended "to convince Iran to halt its nuclear program, and that didn't happen."

"All the information we have is showing that (the Iranians) have no intentions of stopping their nuclear program," the government insider told the Xinhua News Agency.

An Israeli international relations insider, though, said three more multilateral meetings are expected to follow last week's gathering.

"Anyone who understands the basics of negotiations in general and Middle East negotiations in particular can figure out that the Iranians will put their cards on the table only in the last minute of the last round," the official said. "Only then we will know if there's a chance for a breakthrough; it's a good deal for the Iranians, since in the meantime they are gaining more time" (Xinhua News Agency, May 28).

Iran's delegate to the United Nations on Friday said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had hinted at a potential armed offensive against Iran "unwarrantedly and under erroneous and false presumptions on Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," the Kuwait News Agency reported.

Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee voiced his government's "deep concern over, and strong condemnation of such a provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible" warning.

Iran is a "leading nation in rejecting and opposing all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons," he added in matching statements to Secretary General Ban and Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United Nations Agshin Mehdiyev, who now occupies the U.N. Security Council's rotating presidency.

"Iran would not hesitate to act in self-defense to respond to any attack against the Iranian nation and to take appropriate defensive measures to protect itself," Khazaee wrote (Kuwait News Agency, May 26).

Meanwhile, evidence has emerged of a computer attack program larger and potentially more sophisticated than any other to date, the Post reported on Monday. Analysts said the mechanism -- referred to as Flame, Flamer and Skywiper -- exceeds by 20 times the size of the Stuxnet worm that previously harmed Iranian uranium refinement operations.

Still, the program appears to be designed for surveillance as opposed to a direct offensive, according to the Post. Experts said the code's many capabilities so far do not seem to include any aimed at causing damage (Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post II, May 28).

Yaalon addressed the software in his Tuesday remarks, the Associated Press reported.

"Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it," the official said. "Israel is blessed with high technology, and we boast tools that open all sorts of opportunities for us" (Amy Teibel, Associated Press/Time, May 29).

The program was involved in an electronic strike on Iranian petroleum operations, the London Guardian on Monday quoted specialists as saying (Nick Hopkins, London Guardian, May 28).

Tehran on Tuesday indicated it has developed a system capable of countering the malware, Voice of America reported (Voice of America, May 29).

Separately, Iran appears to have targeted through proxies the lives of numerous international relations officials in seven or more nations, U.S. and Persian Gulf nation government personnel said in a Sunday report by the Post. The sources said the effort, which extended over a year and a month, focused on six government personnel from Israel, two from Saudi Arabia and multiple individuals from the United States.

The plots ended suddenly earlier this year amid a decrease in aggressive Iranian statements, according to the insiders. Tehran roughly two months ago backed plans for new multilateral atomic discussions.

"There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks,” an informed Western diplomatic source said. “What happens if the talks fail -- that’s anyone’s guess” (Joby Warrick, Washington Post III, May 27).

Elsewhere, the U.S. Commerce Department has hit the company Mattson with a $78,000 penalty illicitly transferring 47 pressure transducers between 2006 and 2008 to clients in China, Israel, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, India Today reported. Iran might have ultimately received the systems, which can provide barometric readings for uranium enrichment centrifuges (Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, India Today, May 28).

NTI Analysis

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    This paper builds on NTI's 2012 INMM submission and the work of NTI's Societal Verification Working Group, detailing new case studies which retroactively track the social media footprint of past incidents, and further analyzes key questions surrounding societal verification tools and processes.

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