Iran is making significant advancements in its enrichment of uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Friday in its latest safeguards report on the Middle Eastern state's atomic activities, Reuters reported (see GSN, Feb. 23).
The report also addresses this week's trip by agency officials to Tehran. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has already acknowledged that the session, the second round of talks in less than a month, failed to make progress toward resolving concerns that Iran has conducted work relevant to nuclear-weapon development. Iran has rejected all assertions that it aims to develop an atomic arms capability.
"The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," according to the quarterly report.
Uranium enrichment can be used to produce reactor fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material.
Iran has 52 enrichment centrifuge cascades in service at its Natanz facility, an increase from 37 in November, the agency said. Each cascade involves roughly 170 centrifuges.
The nation's newer plant at Qum has close to 700 devices that are enriching uranium to 20 percent, and work continues to place a significant number of additional centrifuges into the site, the report says. The subterranean Qum site has been a particular concern for the United States and other nations, as it is hardened against attack and the 20 percent enrichment level could be a step toward production of weapon-grade material of about 90 percent refinement.
Iran presently holds roughly 110 kilograms of 20 percent material, the report says. It would take about 250 kilograms of material, with further processing, to produce sufficient material for a nuclear weapon, according to Western issue specialists (Fredrick Dahl, Reuters I/Yahoo!News, Feb. 24).
Prior to the report's release, a senior Iranian diplomat said his nation was seeking additional discussions with the nuclear agency, even as one Western diplomatic source characterized this week's meetings as lengthy and lacking in progress, Reuters reported on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the Vienna, Austria-based agency said earlier this week there was no immediate intention to conduct further talks.
Iran's envoy to the U.N. organization said, "Our position is that we are going to continue the talks for cooperation with the agency and we hope that this process will be successfully going on."
"We need a quiet environment, a calm environment to continue our professional work with the agency," Ali Asghar Soltanieh said to Reuters.
He added: "We try to be cooperative. We are dealing with the questions and we are trying to remove ambiguities."
A source from a Western nation disputed that claim.
"Essentially they had two very long and fruitless meetings," the source said.
Iranian officials "systematically just claimed they have no clandestine program and therefore any questions raised (about possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program) were either incorrect or invalid," according to the envoy.
The agency in its last report on Iran said "strong indicators of possible weapon development" existed. It noted indications that a tank for performing explosive detonations relevant to a nuclear-weapon effort had been built at the Parchin military installation.
The IAEA officials have not been allowed to visit Parchin in two visits this year.
"For any visit and access there should be some sort of modality and agreement," Soltanieh said. "It was assumed that after we agreed on the modality then access would be given. Since the modality was not concluded due to time constraints ... this was not possible" (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, Feb. 24).
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro on Thursday said Jerusalem and Washington continue to work closely to deal with the potential danger posed by Iran's atomic activities, Reuters reported. He reaffirmed that "all other options" remain on the table in the nuclear standoff.
"It is clear that Iran is under significant economic strain ... (but the sanctions have) not yet achieved the goal, which is to get that nuclear program stopped ... For both us and for Israel this is the preferred strategy, to achieve that all-important objective," Shapiro said during an event in Jerusalem.
"It's also true, as the president has said ... we are coordinated with our Israeli partners ... that other options, all other options, are on the table to achieve that goal ... [and] the necessary planning has been done to ensure that those options are actually available if at any time they become necessary," he stated.
High-level officials from both countries are making regular trips to the other, Shapiro noted. Iran is likely to be the top issue of discussion when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama on March 5 in Washington.
There has been growing speculation that Israel might conduct air assaults aimed at eliminating nuclear facilities operated by its longtime foe, and that Washington might not be given advance warning. Echoing other U.S. officials, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey recently said the use of military force now against Iran would be "premature."
Shapiro, though, emphasized the importance of collaboration between Israel and the United States in addressing Iran.
"It's the kind of dialogue, I assure you, you would want two allies facing a common security challenge to be having. It is that quality, it's that detail, it's that (intimacy) and it's exactly what should be happening. It will continue when Prime Minister Netanyahu visits Washington," Shapiro said (Ori Lewis, Reuters III, Feb. 23).
Netanyahu's office has told members of his Cabinet to avoid offering public statements on Iran unless they receive authorization from the prime minister, the Associated Press reported on Friday. Such directions have previously been made "about 10 times" in the wake of the killings of Iranian atomic scientists and other incidents that have been linked to Israel, one anonymous Israeli official said.
Netanyahu had already made it clear to Cabinet members that "there is too much fuss and talk about (Iran) and that he would very much appreciate if ministers wouldn't express themes on the subject," according to Israeli Information Minister Yuli Edelstein (Daniel Estrin, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Feb. 24).
Separately, a high-level European Union source said the 27-nation bloc is "rather quickly" expected to establish rules that would keep Iranian banks from using an international fund transfer network, AP reported.
Cutting off access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is another strategy aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its contested nuclear work. Iran has already been hit with four U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and various unilateral penalties by the United States and other nations. The European Union last month signed off on an embargo on Iranian petroleum that is to take full effect by July (Julie Pace, Associated Press II/Google News, Feb. 23).