Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded harshly on Thursday to news that Iran had begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, citing a report by a UN nuclear watchdog agency as proof that “Iran is closer than ever to achieving enriched material for a nuclear bomb.”
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“This is a very grave report which proves that Iran is continuing to make rapid progress toward the red line that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sketched in his speech to the United Nations on September 27, 2012,” a statement released on Thursday by the Prime Minister’s Office said. “Preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is the first subject that Prime Minister Netanyahu will discuss with U.S. President Barack Obama during the latter’s expected visit in less than a month.”
In a confidential report, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that 180 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had been hooked up at the plant near the central Iranian town of Natanz. They were not yet operating, but the installation was nonetheless seen as a defiant step likely to anger world powers ahead of a resumption of talks with Tehran next week.
The United States on Thursday called Iran’s installation of advanced centrifuges “yet another provocative step.”
“The installation of new advanced centrifuges would be a further escalation and a continuing violation of Iran’s [UN] obligations,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
If launched successfully, such machines could enable Iran to significantly speed up its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to devise a nuclear weapon. Iran says it is refining uranium only for peaceful energy purposes.
In either case, the deployment of new centrifuges underlines Iran’s continued refusal to bow to Western pressure to curb its nuclear program, and may further complicate efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically without a spiral into war.
Six world powers and Iran are due to meet for the first time in eight months in Kazakhstan on Tuesday to try again to break the impasse, but analysts expect no real progress toward defusing suspicions of an Iranian quest for nuclear weapons capability.
In a more encouraging sign for the powers, however, the IAEA report said Iran in December resumed converting some of its uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent to powder for the production of reactor fuel. That helped restrain the growth of Iran’s higher-grade uranium stockpile since the previous report in November, a development that could buy more time for diplomacy and delay possible Israeli military action.
Israel, which has warned it might bomb Iran’s nuclear sites as a last resort, last year gave a rough deadline of mid-2013 as the date by which Tehran could have enough higher-grade uranium to produce a single atomic bomb. But a resumption of conversion, experts say, means the Israeli “red line” for action can be postponed.
White House spokesman Jay Carney warned Iran that it would face further pressure and isolation if it fails to address international concerns about its nuclear program in the Feb. 26 talks with world powers in the Kazakh city of Almaty.
Britain's Foreign Office said the IAEA's finding was of "serious concern". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the report "proves that Iran continues to advance swiftly towards the red line" that he laid down last year.
Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop a capability to make atomic bombs. Tehran says it is Israel's assumed nuclear arsenal that threatens peace.
The IAEA's report showed "no evidence of diversion of material and nuclear activities towards military purposes," Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iranian media.
U.S. lawmakers meanwhile are crafting a bill designed to stop the European Central Bank from handling business from the Iranian government, a U.S. congressional aide said on Thursday, in an attempt to keep Tehran from using euros to develop its nuclear program.
In the early stages of drafting, it would target the ECB's cross-border payment system and impose U.S. economic penalties on entities that use the European Central Bank to do business with Iran's government, the aide said on condition of anonymity.
The aide disclosed the new push for sanctions ahead of fresh talks on Tuesday in which major powers hope to persuade the Iranian government to rein in its atomic activities, which the West suspects may be a cover to develop a bomb capability.
Rising western pressure
It was not clear how many of the new centrifuges Iran aims to install at Natanz, which is designed for tens of thousands.
An IAEA note informing member states late last month about Iran's plans implied that it could be up to 3,000 or so.
Iran has for years been trying to develop centrifuges more efficient than the erratic 1970s IR-1 model it now uses, but their introduction for full-scale production has been dogged by delays and technical hurdles, experts and diplomats say.
The deployment of the new centrifuges underlines Iran's continued refusal to bow to Western pressure to curb its nuclear program, and may further complicate efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically, without a spiral into Middle East war.
Iran has also started testing two new centrifuge types, the IR-6 and IR-6s, at a research and development facility, the IAEA report said. Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope in uranium.
In a more encouraging sign for the powers, however, the IAEA report said Iran in December resumed converting some of its uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent to oxide powder for the production of reactor fuel.
That helped restrain the growth of Iran's higher-grade uranium stockpile since the previous report in November, a development that could buy more time for diplomacy.
The report said Iran had increased to 167 kg (367 pounds) its stockpile of 20 percent uranium - a level it says it needs to make fuel for a Tehran research reactor but which also takes it much closer to weapons-grade material if processed further.
New offer to Iran
One diplomat familiar with the report said this represented a rise of about 18-19 kg since November, a notable slowdown from the previous three-month period when the stockpile jumped by nearly 50 percent after Iran halted conversion.
Israel last year gave a rough deadline of mid-2013 as the date by which Tehran could have enough higher-grade uranium to produce a single atomic bomb if processed further. Experts say about 240-250 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium would be needed.
But a resumption of conversion, experts say, means the Israeli "red line" for action could be postponed.
Refined uranium can fuel nuclear energy plants, which is Iran's stated aim, or provide the core of an atomic bomb, which the United States and Israel suspect may be its ultimate goal.
Next week's talks between the six powers and Iran to try again to break the impasse in the decade-old dispute are their first since mid-2012 but analysts expect no real progress toward defusing suspicions that Iran is seeking atomic bomb capability.
The United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany want Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment and shut the Fordow underground plant where this takes place.
Iran wants them to recognize what it regards as its right to refine uranium for peaceful purpose and to relax increasingly strict sanctions battering its oil-dependent economy.
In Paris, French deputy foreign ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani said the powers were ready to make a new offer to Iran with "significant new elements" and that they hoped Tehran would engage seriously in the negotiations.