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U.S. Tries to Head Off Israeli Strike on Iran
The United States is instituting a number of measures intended to increase pressure on Iran while heading off an Israeli strike against its longtime foe's nuclear facilities, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Among the steps is a September mine-elimination drill in the Persian Gulf that is to involve in excess of 25 countries. The drill would demonstrate the nations' capacity to keep the Strait of Hormuz open for the transit of Middle Eastern oil, according to armed forces insiders. Some Iranian officials and lawmakers have said the strait could be blocked in response to nuclear sanctions against their country.
A radar base in Qatar is expected to be finished within a matter of months; it would join similar installations in Israel and Turkey to provide a widespread capability to detect missile threats from Iran. The intent is to demonstrate a capacity to counter potential Iranian nuclear missiles.
Washington, Tel Aviv and other nations suspect Iran of pursuing a nuclear-weapon capability under the guise of a peaceful atomic program. Iran says its nuclear operations are strictly limited to energy production and other civilian pursuits. Top U.S. intelligence officials said earlier this year it did not appear Iranian leaders had made a formal decision to move ahead with a nuclear-weapon program.
President Obama might offer additional statements about Iranian activities that might lead to a U.S. armed forces response. His administration has repeatedly said that military force remains an option in dealing with Iran, but that time has not run out for use of diplomatic and economic levers to resolve the years-old atomic impasse.
There is not yet consensus within the administration on potential statements by Obama as he looks toward the November election. Certain officials assert that the president must reinforce his willingness to order armed action against Iran, while some say Israel is seeking to force U.S. action even though a military response is not yet warranted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent months have stepped up warnings about their nation's willingness to deal militarily with Iran. Reports indicate, though, that there is still considerable debate within Israel about actually carrying out an attack.
"The international community is not setting Iran a clear red line, and Iran does not see international determination to stop its nuclear project,” Netanyahu told top officials on Sunday. “Until Iran sees a clear red line and such determination, it will not stop the progress of its nuclear project — and Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons."
The two nations are also discussing possible follow-ups to the "Olympic Games" computer attack against Iranian uranium enrichment operations, according to the Times. The cyber sabotage became infamous when the malware -- which became known as Stuxnet -- spread to other nations.
Washington fears that an Israeli attack would lead to a quick response from Iran and spread new trouble around the Middle East.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, last week said a unilateral Israeli strike would "clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran's nuclear program." Using force against Iran "prematurely" could lead to dissolution of the grouping of nations that is taking economic action against Iran, he said.
Meanwhile, Washington and Tel Aviv on Monday both rejected an Israeli newspaper report that said the Obama administration was in contact with Tehran on keeping the United States on the sidelines of any military conflict between Iran and Israel, Reuters reported.
"It's incorrect, completely incorrect," White House spokesman Jay Carney said of the Yediot Aharonot report. "The report is false and we don't talk about hypotheticals."
"I don't know what kind of messages Yediot Aharonot heard," said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. "But I think the Iranians understand ... that if they cross a line towards a bomb, they could encounter very strong resistance, including all the options that are on the table -- as the American president has said."
The number of uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's subterranean facility near Qum increased from 1,064 in May to 2,140, the International Atomic Energy Agency said last week in its latest safeguards report on Iranian nuclear operations. Enrichment can produce fuel for nuclear energy but also material for nuclear weapons. The additional devices are not yet online.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog also cited "extensive activities" at the Parchin armed forces installation, including elimination of structures and excavation of soil, Reuters reported. There are suspicions that the work is aimed at concealing indications of secret experiments with nuclear-weapon applications. The Vienna, Austria-based agency has sought unsuccessfully this year to gain access to the site.
There have been "no concrete results" from IAEA-Iran discussions on moving forward with an agency probe of the nation's atomic activities, according to the report.
"Iran's continued enrichment activities ... serve to taunt all those in the international community concerned by Iran's nuclear program," said a high-level envoy from a Western nation.
About 2,800 centrifuges are ultimately intended to be placed at the Qum plant, the New York Times reported. Israel has warned of the danger posed by the facility, which is hardened against airstrikes.
The U.N. agency also found that Tehran holds 417 pounds of 20-percent enriched uranium, which the government says is needed for a medical reactor. Observers worry that production of the higher-enriched material would be a key step toward manufacturing weapon-grade uranium, which has a refinement level of roughly 90 percent.
Iran could not fuel one nuclear weapon with its stock of 20-percent enriched uranium, but now has more than it needs for the reactor, the newspaper reported.
The U.N. findings could lead Tel Aviv to take action against Iran or to acknowledge that a unilateral strike is not possible, the Times quoted government insiders and issue specialists as saying.
“It leaves us at this dead end,” said one high-level government source in Jerusalem. “The more time elapses with no change on the ground in terms of Iranian policies, the more it becomes a zero-sum game.”
Iran last week proposed increasing the number of nations represented on the IAEA governing board, a move that would reduce the strength of Western states suspicious of the Middle Eastern state's atomic intentions, the Associated Press reported.
Tehran, in a document submitted ahead of the IAEA board and general conference sessions later in September, knocked "the limited, unbalanced and inequitable geographical representation" on the 35-nation Board of Governors. Its proposal is not expected to gain much traction.
Meanwhile, Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj on Monday became the only head of an outside government to tour Iran's primary enrichment plant at Natanz, AP reported.
“This site is a unique place. Maybe in other countries it is not possible to visit such a sensitive place,” said Elbegdorj, whose nation is pursuing nuclear energy. “I found out how the enriched uranium is being used for peaceful energy.”
Iran last week said its first nuclear power plant, at Bushehr, had reached "full capacity of 1,000 megawatts," AP reported.
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