The International Atomic Energy Agency and several national intelligence agencies believe Iran could be secretly readying to build two new uranium enrichment facilities, the New York Times reported Saturday (see GSN, March 26).
Officials have based their suspicion on Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi's claim that his nation would begin work on "two new enrichment sites" in the new Iranian year, which began on March 21. The sites "will be built inside mountains," thus giving them shelter from airstrikes, he said.
The U.N. Security Council has adopted three sets of sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program. The United States and its allies have expressed concern that the effort could generate nuclear-weapon material, but Tehran has insisted its nuclear ambitions are strictly peaceful.
U.S. officials, also wary of possible undeclared nuclear work in Iran, have spotted possible clandestine facilities in satellite imagery, However, they have yet to find concrete evidence linking any of the sites to enrichment work.
"While we have some evidence," Iran's extensive tunneling efforts and curbs on international inspections have limited the ability of outside entities to monitor the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear work, one European official said.
Iran seems to be manufacturing new uranium enrichment equipment at small factories spread around the country, but the gear has not been installed at the nation's main enrichment plant at Natanz or an unfinished site at Qum, which was built in secret until last September, according to people familiar with the IAEA position.
Still, any new uranium facility would probably need several years to begin enriching material, the Times reported. Tehran is believed to be between one and four years away from gaining the ability to produce nuclear arms, though there have been reports of problems with its enrichment effort (Sanger/Broad, New York Times, March 27).
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Friday that there would soon be "increasing activity" aimed at imposing a fourth round of Security Council sanctions on Iran, Agence France-Presse reported.
"We are working on language," Clinton said. "I believe that you will see increasing activity in the very near future as we work to bring to fruition a resolution that can muster the votes that are necessary in the Security Council" (Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo!News, March 27).
Top diplomats from the Group of Eight industrialized nations were set to focus on Iran's nuclear work at a meeting expected to begin tonight in Canada and continue through tomorrow, the Associated Press reported.
"Unfortunately I believe we are left with little choice but to pursue additional sanctions against Iran ideally through the United Nations Security Council," Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said (Rob Gillies, Associated Press I/Google News, March 28).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested Saturday that his country was still open to endorsing new U.N. sanctions on Iran, AP reported. Moscow wields veto authority over Security Council like the body's other four permanent members.
"We are convinced that the sanctions path is not optimal," Medvedev said in a statement Saturday to a meeting of the 22-nation League of Arab States in Moscow. "At the same time, developments along this scenario can't be excluded," he said (David Nowak, Associated Press II/Google News, March 27).
Arab League head Amr Moussa pressed the group to seek a diplomatic resolution with Tehran. "I realize that some are worried about Iran, but that is precisely why we need the dialogue," he said.
The call could complicate U.S. and Israeli efforts to pressure Tehran, according to AP (Khaled al-Deeb, Associated Press III/Google News, March 28).
"We must first try to find a diplomatic solution," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Der Spiegel in an interview published today. "What we need here is diplomacy, and then more diplomacy."
"Everything else threatens world peace," AFP quoted him as saying.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel restated her nation's support for new Iran penalties.
"If Iran does not show proof of transparency on nuclear energy issues, we (must) also think about sanctions," she said Saturday (Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, March 27).
Israel has conducted fighter jet drills over two or more Arab nations in preparation to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, the East Jerusalem newspaper al-Manar reported, according to RIA Novosti.
The unnamed host countries were said to be "close territorially with the Islamic republic and cooperate with Israel on this issue." The United States also gave its "blessing" to the exercises, according to the newspaper (RIA Novosti, March 29).