[prepairing agression] Pressure on West to act grows after report on Iranian uranium enrichment [CIA; Germany]

Patrick Wintour

The Guardian  /  February 28, 2023

 International Atomic Energy Association reveals near weapons-grade particles discovered.

Iran has enriched uranium particles up to just short of weapons grade, placing further pressure on western powers to issue a third censure of Iran at a meeting of the nuclear watchdog board next week.

In its quarterly report to the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Association, officials also revealed that the restrictions placed on its inspectors meant it would take a considerable time to provide a full inventory or history of Iran’s enrichment process.

Iran has said the uranium particles, enriched to up to 83.7% purity, had occurred during the “transition period at the time of commissioning the process of [60%] product (November 2022) or while replacing the feed cylinder”.

But the IAEA’s faith in Iran’s reassurances in the absence of corroborative evidence is at an all-time low, and will only encourage Israel to encourage the west to endorse a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Speaking in Berlin, Israel’s visiting foreign minister, Eli Cohen, claimed there were only two options to deal with Iran: using a so-called “snapback” mechanism to reinstate wider UN sanctions on Iran; and “to have a credible military option on the table as well”.

But at the weekend, Bill Burns, the CIA director, continued to insist US intelligence did not have evidence that Iran had taken a weaponization decision.

The latest IAEA report to the board speaks about “particles”, suggesting it does not believe that Iran as a matter of policy is yet building a stockpile of uranium enriched above 60% – the level it has been enriching at from some time.

The report finds the stockpile of uranium enriched at 60%, for which there is no known civilian nuclear use, has risen since the last report to the board. It estimated Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 3,760.8kg (8,291lbs) as of 12 February. The limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal was set at 202.8kg of uranium, but that limit has been breached for many years by Iran.

On Monday in Geneva, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, insisted Tehran was willing to revive the nuclear deal, but the country’s leadership is riven about the wisdom of doing so. The US has said the revival of the talks is not its current focus. The west is under intense pressure to break off the talks, and instead to proscribe the Revolutionary Guards in response to the suppression of Iranian street protests.

In practice, the west has said it will not revive the deal until Iran explains to the IAEA’s satisfaction about the origins of nuclear particles found at three old but undeclared sites. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director general, is unlikely to go to Tehran unless he knows he is going to be given a fuller explanation than on his previous visits.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67% – enough to fuel a nuclear power plant. The US unilateral withdrawal from the accord under Donald Trump’s presidency in 2018 set in motion a series of attacks and escalations by Tehran over its program.

Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for The Guardian


UN report: Uranium particles enriched to 83.7% found in Iran

Stephanie Liechtenstein

AP  /  March 1, 2023

VIENNA – Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog found uranium particles enriched up to 83.7% in Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site, a report seen Tuesday by The Associated Press said.

The confidential quarterly report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency distributed to member states likely will raise tensions further between Iran and the West over its nuclear program. That’s even as Tehran already faces internal unrest after months of protests and Western anger over sending bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war on Ukraine.

The IAEA report only speaks about “particles,” suggesting that Iran isn’t building a stockpile of uranium enriched above 60% — the level it has been enriching at for some time.

The IAEA report described inspectors discovering on Jan. 21 that two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo facility had been configured in a way “substantially different” to what had been previously declared. The IAEA took samples the following day, which showed particles up to 83.7% purity, the report said.

“Iran informed the agency that ‘unintended fluctuations’ in enrichment levels may have occurred during the transition period,” the IAEA report said. “Discussions between the agency and Iran to clarify the matter are ongoing.”

The IAEA report also said that it would “further increase the frequency and intensity of agency verification activities” at Fordo after the discovery.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations told the AP that Massimo Aparo, a top IAEA official, visited the Islamic Republic last week “and checked the alleged enrichment rate.”

“Based on Iran’s assessment, the alleged enrichment percentage between Iran and the IAEA is resolved,” the mission contended. “Due to the IAEA report being prepared before his trip, his trip’s results aren’t in it and hopefully the IAEA director-general will mention it in his oral report to the board of governors” in March.

A spokesman for Iran’s civilian nuclear program, Behrouz Kamalvandi, also sought last week to portray any detection of uranium particles enriched to that level as a momentary side effect of trying to reach a finished product of 60% purity. However, experts say such a great variance in the purity even at the atomic level would appear suspicious to inspectors.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant. The U.S.′ unilateral withdraw from the accord in 2018 set in motion a series of attacks and escalations by Tehran over its program.

Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which non-proliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use. The IAEA report put Iran’s uranium stockpile as of February 12 at some 3,760 kilogram (8,289 pounds) — an increase of 87.1 kilograms (192 pounds) since its last quarterly report in November. Of that, 87.5 kilograms (192 pounds) is enriched up to 60% purity.

Uranium at nearly 84% is almost at weapons-grade levels of 90% — meaning any stockpile of that material could be quickly used to produce an atomic bomb if Iran chooses.

While the IAEA’s director-general has warned Iran now has enough uranium to produce “several” bombs, months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile. The U.S. intelligence community, as recently as this past weekend, has maintained its assessment that Iran isn’t pursuing an atomic bomb.

“To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003,” CIA Director Williams Burns told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program. “But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they’ve obviously advanced very far.”

But Fordo, which sits under a mountain near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran, remains a special concern for the international community. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

Meanwhile, a top Defense Department official told the U.S. House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Iran could make enough fissile material for one nuclear weapons in under two weeks if Tehran choose to pursue it.

“Iran’s nuclear progress since we left the (deal) has been remarkable,” Colin Kahl said. “Back in 2018, when the previous administration decided to leave the (deal), it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days.”

Any explanation from Iran, however, likely won’t be enough to satisfy Israel, Iran’s regional arch-rival. Already, Israel’s recently reinstalled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military actions against Tehran. And Israel and Iran have been engaged in a high-stakes shadow war across the wider Middle East since the nuclear deal’s collapse.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Germany’s foreign minister said both her country and Israel are worried about the allegations facing Iran over the nearly 84% enriched uranium.

“We are united by concern about the nuclear escalation on Iran’s part and about the recent reports about the very high uranium enrichment,” Annalena Baerbock said. “There is no plausible civilian justification for such a high enrichment level.”

Speaking in Berlin, Israel’s visiting foreign minister, Eli Cohen, pointed to two options to deal with Iran — using a so-called “snapback” mechanism in the Security Council resolution that enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal to re-impose U.N. sanctions, and “to have a credible military option on the table as well.”

“From our intelligence and from our knowledge, this is the right time to work on these two specific steps,” he said.

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report


Iran’s nuclear program advancing at worrisome pace, CIA chief says

Paul Carey

The National  /  February 26, 2023

But Tehran still some time away from developing nuclear weapon, CIA director says.

Amid reports that Iran has further enriched uranium, CIA Director William Burns says the country’s nuclear program is advancing at a “worrisome pace”.

Although Iran was last known to have enriched uranium up to 60 per cent purity, recent news reports suggest International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors found uranium enriched to 84 per cent, which was strongly denied by Tehran.

Nuclear weapons-grade uranium is enriched to about 90 per cent purity.

Iran has “advanced very far to the point where it would only be a matter of weeks before they can enrich to 90 per cent, if they chose to cross that line”, Mr Burns told CBS, calling the progress “quite troubling”.

But he said the US did not believe Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had decided to “resume the weaponization program that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003”.

Tehran has repeatedly insisted that it is not planning to build a nuclear bomb.

A nuclear agreement signed in 2015 between Tehran and global powers promised Iran sanctions relief in exchange for cutting back its nuclear program.

But Iran started increasing its nuclear activity in 2019, a year after the US, under former president Donald Trump, pulled out of the landmark deal and reinstated sanctions.

Negotiations to revive the accord have stalled.

Mr Burns said Iran was “still a ways off … in terms of their ability to actually develop a weapon”.

But he said advancements in enrichment and missile systems that would be able deliver a nuclear weapon were “growing at a worrisome pace”.

Another point of concern is that Russia is proposing to help Iran’s missile program, Mr Burns said.

He said the US still believed that Moscow was also considering sending fighter jets to Iran.

Moscow and Tehran have expanded their military co-operation, with Iran shipping growing quantities of weaponry to Russia for use in the invasion of Ukraine.

Their co-operation is “moving at a pretty fast clip in a very dangerous direction”, Mr Burns said.

“That creates obvious risks not only for the people of Ukraine — and we’ve seen the evidence of that already — but also risks to our friends and partners across the Middle East as well.”

Paul Carey – Deputy London Bureau Chief


Germany fears Iran a danger to entire Middle East

Tim Stickings

The National  /  February 28, 2023

Israeli and German foreign ministers voice new concern over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions

Iran is threatening the security of the whole Middle East, Germany said on Tuesday, as it was urged by Israel to consider military steps.

Any nuclear escalation by Iran would be “devastating for the whole region”, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.

After meeting Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, she said Germany and Israel had a shared concern over reports Iran was enriching uranium to 84 per cent.

She said there would be “no plausible civilian justification” for such behaviour by Iran, which denies the claims.

“Iran’s regime is not only suppressing its own citizens in the most brutal way,” she said. “Iran is also endangering stability and security in the whole Near and Middle East through its support for militant groups.

“Iran must not come into possession of a nuclear weapon. That is our common position and the goal of our diplomatic efforts.”

Mr Cohen made a public appeal to Ms Baerbock that “this is the time to take steps” to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear arms.

Asked what kind of measures he had in mind, the Israeli minister said world powers could either tighten sanctions on Iran or “put military options on the table”.

Responding to those comments, Ms Baerbock said Germany wanted to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran by diplomatic means.

Iran has openly flouted its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Israel opposes. Talks between Tehran and European powers have failed to revive the pact.

The regime admits enriching uranium to 60 per cent. A level of 90 per cent is considered weapons-grade but is only a short technical step away. The 2015 deal set a cap of 3.67 per cent.

Mr Cohen said: “The international community cannot ever accept a nuclear Iran.”

The Israeli minister, who recently visited Kyiv, said Iran’s arms supplies to Russia meant it was now complicit in killing people in Europe.

Israel plans to provide an alert system to Ukraine, which has come under attack from Iranian-made drones used by Russia.

“The fingerprints of Iran’s state terrorism can be seen in the case of Ukraine,” Mr Cohen said.

“The Iranian regime is no longer just a regional problem but also a problem to Europe and to the world as well.”

Tim Stickings – Reporter, London