Iran, world powers ‘far apart’ after new nuke talks


The world powers will pursue further talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but will not continue them indefinitely, John Kerry said a day after another round of talks failed to produce any new proposals.

The talks between Iran and six world powers – the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, ended Saturday in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Kerry made the statement Sunday in Istanbul.

The world powers waited for Iran's response to a proposal under which Iran would halt production of nearly weapons-grade enriched uranium in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.

In return, Iran said it made a “comprehensive proposal” to “establish a new bedrock for cooperation,” similar to a proposal rejected by the powers in June.

The announcement by Ali Baqeri, deputy head of the Iranian delegation, came following the opening session of talks in Kazakhstan.

Baqeri said that Iran had more than met demands from American and European officials that his country offer a concrete show of willingness to address international concerns about its nuclear program.

“These steps are referred to as confidence-building measures, but they are part of a comprehensive set of measures,” Baqeri said.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the talks, said the sides “remain far apart on the substance.” No new talks were scheduled.

At the last round of talks in February, the world powers offered a modest easing of international sanctions if Iran takes steps to limit its supply of dangerous enriched uranium. The proposal required Iran to shut its enrichment plant at Fordow.

While Iran says its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, American, Israeli, European and other Western officials suspect that Tehran is seeking the technology for nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu: Iran shortening the time needed to cross “red line.”


Addressing a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the Iranian nuclear threat and said he looked forward to President Obama’s upcoming Israel trip.

In the Monday night speech, Netanyahu also reaffirmed his commitment to a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The prime minister said that Iran had yet to cross the “red line” in its nuclear fuel enrichment that would necessitate an attack on its enrichment facilities, but that Iran is working to “shorten the time it will take them to cross that line.”

“This has to be stopped in the interests of peace and security,” he said. “You have to upgrade the sanctions, and we have to know if sanctions and diplomacy fail, that [Iran] will face a credible military threat.”

Aside from Iran, Netanyahu said the two major security threats Israel faces are from the stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria, which could fall into the hands of terrorists, as well as the ongoing diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians.

He called for “two states for two peoples – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. I think to reach this solution we have to negotiate in good faith. Negotiating in good faith means you don’t place preconditions.”

Netayahu said that Obama’s visit, scheduled for March, is “a wonderful opportunity to reaffirm the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States.”

Syria may hold uranium stash, Western and Israeli experts say


Western and Israeli security experts suspect Syria may have tonnes of unenriched uranium in storage and that any such stockpile could potentially be of interest to its ally Iran for use in Tehran's own disputed nuclear program.

They say natural uranium could have been acquired by the Arab state years ago to fuel a suspected nuclear reactor under construction that was bombed by Israel in 2007.

U.S. intelligence reports at the time said the site in Syria's desert Deir al-Zor region was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor designed to produce plutonium for atomic arms.

Syria, ravaged by a war the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people, has denied accusations of a clandestine nuclear programme. Its envoy in Vienna, where the U.N. nuclear watchdog is based, was not available for comment on Friday.

“Someplace there has got to be an inventory of fuel for the reactor. It doesn't make sense to have a nuclear installation, a nuclear reactor, without any fuel,” proliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think tank said.

But, he added, “to my knowledge there hasn't been any substantiated accounts identifying where that material may be located.” It would likely have come from North Korea, he said.

Even if Syria did have such a stockpile, it would not be usable for nuclear weapons in its present form, a fact that makes it less of a pressing concern for the West than fears that government forces may use chemical arms against their foes.

The Financial Times newspaper said this week Syria may hold up to 50 tonnes of unenriched, or natural, uranium – material which can fuel atomic power plants and also provide the explosive core of nuclear bombs, but only if refined to a high degree.

Some government officials have raised concerns that Iran might try to seize it, the FT said, without identifying them.

Though such a quantity in theory could yield material for several atom bombs, it would first have to be enriched much further, from 0.7 percent of the fissile isotope in natural uranium to 90 percent, in a technically complicated process.

Iran, which denies Western accusations of atomic bomb ambitions, has said its mines can supply the raw uranium needed for its nuclear programme and that it has no shortage problems.

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which for several years has been seeking access to the destroyed Deir al-Zor site as well as three other locations that may be linked to it, declined to comment on the FT report.

A recently retired Israeli security official said he believed Syria was keeping uranium at a site near Damascus, one of the places the IAEA wants to inspect, but he did not say what he based this on.

IRAN CONNECTION?

The former Israeli official said rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who now control a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of the capital, may get hold of the stockpile and make its existence public.

“Then it would put paid to the Syrians' claims that they never had a reactor in the first place,” he said.

Another possibility was that Syria, “knowing the material is no longer secured, could ship it out to Iran, which is certainly in need of more uranium for its own nuclear plans,” the former Israeli official, who declined to be named, added.

But a veteran Israeli intelligence analyst who now works as a government adviser said the figure of 50 tonnes of uranium cited by the Financial Times was “not at all familiar to me”.

A Western diplomat said there had been speculation about possible uranium – perhaps in the form of natural uranium metal to fuel a reactor – in Syria because of the destroyed Deir al-Zor site but that he knew of no specific details.

“It is plausible. But as far as I know no one has ever had any idea where the material is,” he said, adding it would not be easy to ship large quantities to Iran without detection.

Syria says Deir al-Zor was a conventional military facility but the IAEA concluded in May 2011 that it was “very likely” to have been a reactor that should have been declared to its anti-proliferation inspectors.

If there is a stockpile of uranium in Syria, it would be of use for Iran as it faces a potential shortage, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.

“Syria has been getting quite a bit of help from Iran. This would have been one means of repaying them,” he said. “There is evidence that Iran is looking around the world for uranium.”

Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, and Western powers accuse Iran of seeking to develop a capability to make atomic bombs.

The Islamic state says its programme to refine uranium is solely intended for peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Some Western analysts have said Iran may be close to exhausting its supply of raw uranium, known as “yellow cake”, although IAEA reports suggest it still has plenty of natural uranium gas to use for its enrichment work.

“If there is an undeclared inventory of 50 tonnes of uranium then, if I were Assad, I would want to spirit it out of there and the most likely place would be Iran,” Hibbs said.

Iran, U.N. nuclear agency to resume talks in December


Iran will return to talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency next month, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Friday, the latest push to seek a peaceful end to a dispute that has raised fears of a new Middle East war.

The IAEA announcement came days after U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election, which some analysts say may give fresh impetus to diplomatic efforts to end a decade-old standoff with a country the West accuses of working towards nuclear weapons capability.

In a stark reminder of how tensions could escalate, the Pentagon said on Thursday that Iranian warplanes fired at an unarmed U.S. drone in the Gulf last week.

The IAEA said it hoped the talks in Tehran on December 13 would produce an agreement to allow it to resume a long-stalled investigation into possible military aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

The agency says it has “credible information indicating that Iran had carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and wants Tehran to give it access to sites, officials and documents to clarify the issue.

Iran denies it wants nuclear bombs and has repeatedly ruled out stopping its atomic activities.

A series of meetings since early this year, the last one in August, failed to make concrete progress.

Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, has threatened military action if it looks like Tehran is close to getting nuclear weapons capability.

“The aim (of the talks) is to conclude the structured approach to resolving outstanding issues related to Iran's nuclear program,” agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.

A Western diplomat was skeptical, noting that the talks would only take place after the next meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board.

“So it is the usual scenario: defer criticism now by promising something later. Something that has failed to materialize the last four times,” the envoy said.

INITIAL STEP?

The IAEA's talks with Iran are separate from Tehran's nuclear discussions with six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – which resumed in April but have also so far failed to reach any breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – who represents the powers in talks with Iran – sees the new IAEA-Iran meeting as long overdue.

It “could be an initial step on the path to resolve outstanding issues,” Maja Kocijancic, Ashton's spokeswoman, said, adding that Iran had so far failed to cooperate in substance.

She reiterated concerns about the Parchin military site, which the IAEA wants to visit as part of its inquiry and where Western diplomats suspect Iran is now trying to clean up any evidence of past illicit nuclear-related activity.

The IAEA mission is likely to be headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector, diplomatic sources said.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was not immediately available for comment.

Years of talks and sanctions have failed to end the dispute.

But, now assured of a second term, Obama, who has so far resisted calls in the United States and Israel for an attack on Iran, appears free to pursue a diplomatic settlement while threatening yet heavier sanctions if Tehran does not bend.

The United States and its allies want Iran to curb its uranium enrichment program. Iran, one of the world's largest oil producers, says the West must first lift increasingly harsh sanctions.

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Israelis see no Iran war this year after Netanyahu’s speech


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's U.N. speech about Iranian nuclear advances has dampened speculation in Israel that he could order a war this year.

Analyzing Thursday's address in which Netanyahu literally drew a “red line” on a cartoon bomb to show how close Iran was to building nuclear weaponry, commentators saw his deadline for any military action falling in early or mid-2013, well after U.S. elections in November and a possible snap Israeli poll.

“The 'decisive year' of 2012 will pass without decisiveness,” wrote Ofer Shelah of Maariv newspaper on Friday.

Without explicitly saying so, Netanyahu implied Israel would attack Iran's uranium enrichment facilities if they were allowed to process potential weapons-grade material beyond his red line.

Maariv and another mass-circulation Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, said spring 2013 now looked like Netanyahu's target date, given his prediction that by then Iran may have amassed enough 20 percent-enriched uranium for a first bomb, if purified further.

But the front pages of the liberal Haaretz and pro-government Israel Hayom newspapers cited mid-2013 – Netanyahu's outside estimate for when the Iranians would be ready to embark on the last stage of building such a weapon, which could take only “a few months, possibly a few weeks”.

Iran, which denies it is seeking nuclear arms, said Netanyahu's speech made “baseless and absurd allegations” and that the Islamic Republic “reserves its full right to retaliate with full force against any attack”. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal.

Israeli diplomats were reluctant to elaborate on Netanyahu's speech, saying its main aim was to illustrate the threat from Tehran.

Asked on Israel's Army Radio whether Netanyahu had signaled he would strike in the spring if U.S. and European Union sanctions fail to curb Iran's nuclear work, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “No, no, I would not go that far.”

“The prime minister clarified a message to the international community (that) if they want to prevent the next war, they must prevent a nuclear Iran,” Lieberman added.

TRUCE WITH OBAMA

Netanyahu's increasingly hawkish words on Iran in recent weeks and months strained relations with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has resisted the calls to set Tehran an ultimatum while fending off charges by his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, that he is soft on Israel's security.

Netanyahu praised Obama's resolve in his U.N. address, which the prime minister described as advancing their “common goal” – a strong signal that Israel would not blindside Washington with a unilateral attack on Iran.

Israel Hayom pundit Dan Margalit said the speech constituted “an almost explicit acknowledgment that he (Netanyahu) is declaring a truce in the public argument between him and the president. At least, until after the (U.S.) election.”

Netanyahu has political worries too, given deadlock in his coalition government over the 2013 budget which, if not ratified by December, could trigger an early Israeli election next year.

In a broadcast editorial, Army Radio depicted war with Iran as no longer an imminent dilemma troubling the prime minister.

Instead, the station said, Netanyahu would have to decide “whether he is going to elections sooner, in January, February, or maybe March, or whether he will be able to pass the budget, take care of the Iranian issue and then go to elections in October (2013) as scheduled.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this month that Washington would have “about a year” to stop Iran should it decide to cross the threshold of producing nuclear weaponry – a more expansive timeline than that put forward by Israel.

That could spell fresh clashes between the allies over Tehran's continued 20-percent uranium enrichment, a process the Iranians say they need for medical isotopes but that also brings the fissile material much closer to weapons grade.

An Israeli official briefed on the government's Iran strategy cautioned against interpreting dates Netanyahu gave at the United Nations as deadlines, saying the preparations had already been made for military strikes.

“When he says Iran will have a bomb by this-or-that point in time, that in no way means the war option must wait until then,” the official told Reuters. “There are other considerations to the timing – operational and strategic.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Iran reportedly installs hundreds of new uranium enrichment machines


Iran may have installed as many as “hundreds of new” uranium enrichment machines in its underground nuclear facility at Fordow.

“Our basic understanding is that they were continuing to install,” Reuters quotes an unnamed diplomat based in Vienna as saying.

The new centrifuges were not yet operating, according to the Reuters report. Another source spoke of “hundreds of new machines.”

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week. Talks between IAEA representatives and Iranian delegates resume on Friday at the agency’s headquarters in the Austrian capital.

If the Reuters report matches the conclusions of the UN atomic watchdog report, the development could be seen as a sign of Iran’s continued defiance of international demands to curb its nuclear program.

The fresh round of talks follow discussions that ended in failure in June.

The IAEA negotiations are separate from talks between Iran and world powers, which have made little progress since restarting in April after a 15-month hiatus.

Israel and other Western countries believe the Iranian nuclear program is aimed at building nuclear weapons. Tehran repeatedly says that its nuclear activity is a domestic energy creating program and for peaceful research.

During next week’s talks in Vienna, the parties also are expected to discuss claims that Iran is cleaning up facilities at its Parchin site near Tehran, allegedly to remove any sign of illicit nuclear activity. In the past, Tehran has dismissed allegations about Parchin, which it says is a normal military site.

The IAEA suspects Iran has conducted tests with a military dimension at Parchin; the talks with IAEA officials are expected to again press Iran for access to the site.

Former IDF commander: Iranian nuclear threat not imminent


Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Israeli military chief of staff, said that the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran was not imminent.

Ashkenazi, who was chief of staff from 2007 until February 2011, was filmed saying at a recent lecture: “Anyone who thinks that there’ll be an Iranian nuclear weapon when we wake up tomorrow morning – well, we aren’t there yet.”

The footage, obtained by the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, was broadcast on Channel 2 News on Thursday. “This threat that emerges in the east, and all the darkening on that horizon – we aren’t there yet,” Ashkenazi was also filmed saying.

Israel should maintain a multi-pronged strategic approach — “a covert campaign” to thwart the Iranian nuclear drive; “diplomatic, political and economic sanctions; and a credible, realistic military threat,” he said. “We have to hope that this combination will keep Iran from going for the bomb.”

The comments marked Ashkenazi’s clearest expression to date of opposition to the imminent strike reportedly being contemplated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, has also advised against a strike. Amos Yadlin, a former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, recently wrote in the Washongton Post that Israel had no choice but to prepare for a a possible strike on Iran.

Yisrael Hayom, another Israeli daily, reported that Shelly Yachimovich, chairperson of the Israeli Labor Party, met this week in Paris with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. She reportedly asked him to tighten the European Union’s sanctions on Iran.

Dear Ahmadinejad: Let me tell you about cancer


This column originally appeared at WashingtonPost.com.

When the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compares Israel to a cancer, I take it personally.

On Monday, you see, I traveled to Israel to co-officiate at a wedding. And I have cancer.

I’ve been in remission from lymphoma for several years, and I visit Israel on average once or twice a year. So, as someone who claims a perverse expertise, permit me to point out three problems with his analogy:

First, cancer is, by definition, spreading. “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell,” Edward Abbey memorably wrote. Therefore a cancerous nation should, by definition, spread and grow large. Yet Israel (even if it annexed every bit of the West Bank) has given back far more territory than it ever conquered.

[Related: EU’s Ashton condemns ‘hateful’ Iran remarks on Israel]

The Sinai Peninsula dwarfs the other lands that were captured in a war that Israel did not start. Indeed, the lands Israel returned (more than 20,000 square miles) are larger than Israel itself. Israel is around 8,000 square miles, smaller than New Jersey, while Iran, which is 167,618 square miles, is slightly larger than California. Of course, this does not count the other Arab and Muslim nations of the world, of which there are more than 40, as opposed to one Jewish state. So on behalf of those who suffer with cancer and poor math skills everywhere, I wish Ahmadinajad would demonstrate a mathematical awareness consistent with his doctorate in engineering.

The second problem in the analogy is that healthy cells predate cancerous ones. Cancer is something that afflicts a body after it is formed. Since the State of Israel goes back 3,000 years, and Islam began in the 7th century (thus dating 1,500 years), it seems anachronistic, to say the least, to imply that Israel is an alien growth. Here, of course, a trained engineer may be forgiven for his ignorance of biology and history.

Finally, may I say as someone who has gone through two neurosurgeries and chemotherapy, at this stage of cancer treatment we know only how to either cut it out or blast it away? So how does one eliminate a cancerous people? The analogy leads inevitably, inexorably, to the prospect of genocide. When you define a nation as a cancer you imply the solution is mass murder. My cancer was put into remission by a line leading into my vein that dripped life-giving poison. What would the Iranian leadership use as a “cure” for Israel? Radiation, no doubt.
Ahmadinejad’s accusation is neither an idle threat nor overblown rhetoric. Iran eagerly pursues nuclear weapons. And as Abba Eban memorably said, there are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed, but nothing too terrible not to have happened.

Do you suppose the world community will stir at this outrage? With “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the world’s most notorious anti-Semitic forgery, available in hotels in Jordan and on TV serials in Egypt, are there rounds of condemnations at the United Nations? Will Ahmadinajad no more be invited to international gatherings and symposia? Will the Muslim nations arise and say as one that we do not speak of people and nations in that manner? Will the world recognize that the Iranian leadership dreams of combining the two great warning signs of history, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?

No, this is what will happen: The furor will abate, the world will convince itself that he doesn’t really mean it, or he doesn’t really have power. He will be applauded on the streets of Arab capitals, and the nations will swallow some sleeping draught composed of complacency, indifference, foolishness and a pinch of anti-Semitism.

As I walk in Israel, I will see the eyes of a people who have never, not for a single day since the founding of the state, been accepted by their neighbors. I will know that if tomorrow the military situation were reversed, and Israel’s enemies had her firepower and she had theirs, there would not be roadblocks, housing and land disputes and voting discrimination as now exist against Palestinians, but wholesale slaughter. I will remember that whatever one thinks of the settlements, there were unremitting attacks against Israel before a single settlement existed.

In the background I will hear the voice of a malevolent man with power. It is not an unfamiliar voice in Jewish history. Thousands of years have taught us that when evil speaks, it is always in earnest. Asked what was the lesson of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel answered, “That you can get away with it.” Ignore this voice and we will learn that lesson once more.


Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, David Wolpe is the author of seven books including “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” and his latest, “Why Faith Matters.” Follow him on Facebook.

Khamenei dismisses sanctions, says Iran stronger than ever


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed harsher sanctions imposed on Iran this month over its disputed nuclear activity, saying the country was “100 times stronger” than before.

A European Union embargo on Iranian crude oil took full effect on July 1 – a joint effort with the United States to force Tehran to curb nuclear energy work the Western powers say is a camouflaged bid to develop bombs, which Tehran denies.

Prices of goods have soared and the Iranian rial has plunged in value as broader, deeper sanctions have been introduced this year targeting Iran’s financial and energy sectors.

“The Iranian nation, through life, wealth and loved ones, has stood up to all plots and sanctions and has advanced to the extent that today we are 100 times stronger compared with 30 years ago,” Khamenei told a women’s conference in Tehran in a speech that was published on his official website.

“These days Westerners are being sensational about sanctions but they don’t understand that they themselves vaccinated Iran through their sanctions imposed over the last 30 years,” he said. Iran’s Islamic Revolution a little over three decades ago toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

Iranian officials regularly shrug off sanctions, saying they have little or no effect on the country. But a combination of increasing unemployment, substantial price rises and rampant inflation is creating tough new challenges for the government.

Industry sources say Iran’s oil exports have declined in the wake of the EU crude ban and extensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to get Iran’s main customers to cut their imports.

The United States imposed sanctions in 1979, soon after the Islamic Revolution that overthrew its monarchy. Successive U.S. administrations have added to the embargo, effectively creating a near total ban on any trade between it and Iran.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of international sanctions specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear activities. Tehran says its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

Six world powers and Iran have had several rounds of negotiations on how to defuse concerns over its nuclear ambitions this year but found no common ground for a deal.

Senior diplomats from the EU and Iran will meet on July 24 for technical talks to try to salvage diplomatic efforts to resolve the decade-long standoff.

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran says test-fires missiles over threats of attack


Iran said on Tuesday it had successfully tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israel as a response to threats of attack, the latest move in a war of nerves with the West.

Israel says it could attack Iran if diplomacy fails to secure a halt to its disputed nuclear energy programme. The United States also has military force as a possible option but has repeatedly encouraged the Israelis to be patient while new economic sanctions are implemented against Iran.

The Islamic Republic announced the “Great Prophet 7” missile exercise on Sunday after a European embargo against Iranian crude oil purchases took full effect following another fruitless round of big power talks with Tehran.

Iran’s official English-language Press TV said the Shahab 3 missile with a range of 1,300 km (800 miles) – able to reach Israel – was tested along with the shorter-range Shahab 1 and 2.

“The main aim of this drill is to demonstrate the Iranian nation’s political resolve to defend vital values and national interests,” Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander Hossein Salami was quoted by Press TV as saying.

He said the tests were in response to Iran’s enemies who talk of a “military option being on the table”.

On Sunday, Iran threatened to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth” if the Jewish state attacked it.

Analysts have challenged some of Iran’s military assertions, saying it often exaggerates its capabilities.

Senior researcher Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Iran’s missiles were still relatively inaccurate and of limited use in conventional warfare. With conventional warheads, “their only utility is as a tool of terror and no more than that”, he said by telephone.

He added, however, that they could be suitable for carrying nuclear warheads, especially the larger ones.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a 2010 report that all Tehran’s ballistic missiles were “inherently capable of a nuclear payload”, if Iran was able to make a small enough bomb.

Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability. The world’s No. 5 oil exporter maintains that it is enriching uranium only to generate more energy for a rapidly growing population.

OIL MARKETS ON EDGE

Iran has previously threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes, in response to increasingly harsh sanctions by the United States and its allies intended to force it to curb its nuclear research programme.

Fars said dozens of missiles involved in this week’s exercises had been aimed at simulated air bases, and that Iranian-built unmanned drones would be tested on Wednesday.

Iran repeated its claim to be reverse-engineering the sophisticated U.S. RQ-170 drone that it says it brought down during a spying mission last year.

“In this drone there are hundreds of technologies used, each of which are valuable to us in terms of operations, information and technicalities,” General Amir Hajizadeh was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying.

Wezeman said Iran had a large standing armed force, but that its weapons were generally outdated. “And those weapons only get older and older and they don’t have access to new technology because they are under a United Nations arms embargo.”

In his first comments since the European Union oil ban took force, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said sanctions would benefit Iran by lessening its dependence on crude exports.

“We must see the sanctions as an opportunity … which can forever take out of the enemy’s hands the ability to use oil as a weapon for sanctions,” Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme continued in Istanbul on Tuesday with a meeting of technical experts from Iran and six world powers.

The discussions follow a round of political talks in Moscow last month at which the sides failed to bridge differences or agree on a further round of talks at that level.

The experts have no mandate to strike agreements but the six powers – the United States, China, Britain, Germany, France and Russia – hope that by clarifying technical aspects of Tehran’s work they can open way for more negotiations in the future.

Diplomats in Istanbul said discussions in the Turkish capital were “detailed” and would most likely be followed by a meeting between a senior negotiator from the European Union and Iran’s deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri. Such a meeting could, at a later date, be a prelude to talks on a political level, diplomats have said.

“We hope Iran will seize the opportunity … to show a willingness to take concrete steps to urgently meet the concerns of the international community,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the meeting. Ashton and her team represent the six powers in dealings with Iran.

As a priority, the powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to levels close to weapons-grade, ship out any stockpile, and close a secret facility where such work is done.

Iran denies its programme has a military dimension and wants relief from economic sanctions before it makes any concessions.

IRANIAN CALL TO SHUT OIL LANES

On Monday, Iranian parliamentarians proposed a bill calling for Iran to try to stop tankers taking crude through the Strait of Hormuz to countries that support the sanctions.

However, the Iranian parliament is relatively weak, analysts say, and the proposal has no chance of becoming law unless sanctioned by Iran’s clerical supreme leader.

That is seen as unlikely in the near term given that Western powers have said they would tolerate no closure of the Strait while Iranian leaders, wedded to strategic pragmatism for the sake of survival, have said they seek no war with anyone.

“It’s a gesture at this stage,” said independent British-based Iran analyst Reza Esfandiari.

“They want to emphasise that Iran can make life difficult for Europe and America. I think this is more of an attempt to offset falling crude prices. Financial markets are very sensitive to such talk.”

On Tuesday, the price of Brent crude, which has been on a downward trend for the last three months, broke $100 for the first time since early June.

“A lot depends on nuclear talks,” said Esfandiari. “If there’s no progress and the initiative is deadlocked, then these kind of actions will intensify.”

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Kevin Liffey and Michael Roddy

Iran threatens Israel; new EU sanctions take force


Iran announced missile tests on Sunday and threatened to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth” if the Jewish state attacked it, brandishing some of its starkest threats on the day Europe began enforcing an oil embargo and harsh new sanctions.

The European sanctions – including a ban on imports of Iranian oil by EU states and measures that make it difficult for other countries to trade with Iran – were enacted earlier this year but mainly came into effect on July 1.

They are designed to break Iran’s economy and force it to curb nuclear work that Western countries say is aimed at producing an atomic weapon. Reporting by Reuters has shown in recent months that the sanctions have already had a significant effect on Iran’s economy.

Israel says it could attack Iran if diplomacy fails to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear aims. The United States also says military force is on the table as a last resort, but U.S. officials have repeatedly encouraged the Israelis to be patient while new sanctions take effect.

Washington said the EU’s oil ban might force Tehran to give ground at the next round of nuclear talks, scheduled for this week in Istanbul.

Announcing three days of missile tests in the coming week, Revolutionary Guards General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said the exercises should be seen as a message “that the Islamic Republic of Iran is resolute in standing up to … bullying, and will respond to any possible evil decisively and strongly.”

Any attack on Iran by Israel would be answered resolutely: “If they take any action, they will hand us an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth,” said Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ airborne division, according to state news agency IRNA.

The missile tests will target mock-ups of air bases in the region, Hajizadeh said, adding that its ability to strike U.S. bases in the Gulf protects Iran from U.S. support for Israel.

“U.S. bases in the region are within range of our missiles and weapons, and therefore they certainly will not cooperate with the regime,” he told IRNA.

Iran has repeatedly unnerved oil markets by threatening reprisals if it were to be attacked or its trade disrupted.

The threat against the Jewish state echoed words President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke in 2005, saying Israel “must be wiped off the page of time” – a phrase often translated as “wiped off the map” and cited by Israel to show how allowing Iran to get nuclear arms would be a threat to its existence.

The EU ban on Iranian oil imports directly deprives Iran of a market that bought 18 percent of its exports a year ago. The sanctions also bar EU companies from transporting Iranian crude or insuring shipments, hurting its trade worldwide.

“They signal our clear determination to intensify the peaceful diplomatic pressure,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.

The EU sanctions come alongside stringent new measures imposed by Washington this year on third countries doing business with Iran. The United States welcomed the EU sanctions as an “essential part” of diplomatic efforts “to seek a peaceful resolution that addresses the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he hoped the sanctions would force Tehran to make concessions in technical-level talks with six world powers later this week.

MALICIOUS POLICIES

“Iran has an opportunity to pursue substantive negotiations, beginning with expert level talks this week in Istanbul, and must take concrete steps toward a comprehensive resolution of the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear activities,” Carney said in a statement.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – foes of Iran which face it across the oil-rich Gulf – announced their own joint air force exercises on Sunday which they said would take “several days,” their state news agencies reported.

In three rounds of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the Western powers have demanded Tehran halt high-grade uranium enrichment, ship out all high-grade uranium and close a key enrichment facility.

The talks lost steam at the last meeting in Moscow last month and there was not enough common ground for negotiators to agree whether to meet again. Officials – but not political decision-makers – meet in Turkey on Tuesday.

Washington sees the sanctions and talks as a potential way out of the standoff to avert the need for military action, but has not said it would block Israel from attacking Iran.

Tehran says it has a right to peaceful nuclear technologies and is not seeking the bomb. It accuses nuclear-armed states of hypocrisy. Officials said they were taking steps to reduce the economic impact of the new sanctions.

“We are implementing programs to counter sanctions and we will confront these malicious policies,” Mehr news agency quoted Iranian central bank governor Mahmoud Bahmani as saying.

Bahmani has struggled to prevent a plunge in the value of the rial currency and steadily rising inflation as the sanctions have taken effect. He said the effects of the sanctions were tough but that Iran had built up $150 billion in foreign reserves to protect its economy.

Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi said oil importing countries would be the losers if the sanctions lead to price rises.

“All possible options have been planned in government to counter sanctions,” Qasemi said on the ministry’s website.

Last Friday, another Revolutionary Guards commander, Ali Fadavi, said Iran would equip its ships in the Strait of Hormuz – the neck of the Gulf and a vital oil transit point – with shorter-range missiles.

Additional reporting by Marcus George and Isabel Coles in Dubai and by Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Peter Graff

Israel says clock ticking after Iran talks fail


Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

With diplomacy at an impasse, there is satisfaction among Israeli leaders at what they see as a tough line taken by the West in the negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli political sources said on Thursday.

A member of the British negotiating team quietly visited Israel on Wednesday to brief officials on this week’s Moscow talks, the sources said, and new U.S. and European sanctions against Iran are due to come into effect in the next two weeks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.

“I don’t want to pretend to set timelines for the world,” he said, “but we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it (also) cannot be a matter of years”.

Preparations for any strike against Iran, which Israel and Western powers suspect is trying to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, are closely guarded in Israel.

But Barak said that even in the United States, which has counseled against jumping the gun while a diplomatic drive with Iran is under way, “at least on a technical level, there are a lot of preparations”.

Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – failed to secure a breakthrough in Moscow at what was the third round of the latest diplomatic initiative, and set no date for more political talks.

DEMANDS

Last month, and again in Moscow, the powers asked Iran to close the Fordow underground facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stockpile out of the country, demands that come close to Israel’s.

Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Wednesday.

“I explained that after the failure of the … talks in Moscow, the West must impose a full oil embargo on Iran and tough financial sanctions,” Mofaz said on his Facebook page, adding: “In parallel, preparations for other options must continue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the Moscow talks. He had complained that the months of talking had given Iran a “freebie” to continue enrichment.

The right-wing leader has been cautioned by former Israeli security chiefs against ordering attacks on Iran, amid skepticism about how effective Israeli air strikes would be.

Iran, which has called for Israel’s demise, says its nuclear program is designed for energy production alone. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to its existence.

Barak, in the newspaper interview, held out little hope that diplomacy would persuade Iran to bend.

“By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision,” he said.

“It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it’s up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.”

Weighing into the debate, Israeli President Shimon Peres told an audience in Jerusalem: “There’s not much time. If the Iranians … don’t heed the warnings, the calls and the economic sanctions, the world will look to other options.”

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

U.S.: Israel ‘supportive’ on future Iran sanctions


The United States is conferring with Israel about new sanctions planned against Iran should international negotiations this month fail to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, a U.S. official said on Monday.

The comment offered a strong hint that Washington is continuing to apply the brakes on any plan by Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities preemptively.

Israel has signaled increasing impatience with the lack of progress towards circumscribing the nuclear program during the negotiations involving Iran, the United States and five other world powers. The third round of talks will be hosted by Russia on June 18-19.

“If we don’t get a breakthrough in Moscow there is no question we will continue to ratchet up the pressure,” David Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told Haaretz newspaper during a visit to Israel.

The United States and European Union have already made clear they will stiffen sanctions should Iran pursue uranium enrichment, a process that can yield fuel for warheads though it insists the objective is civilian energy and medical isotopes.

An Israeli official who met Cohen told Reuters that the message on sanctions was welcomed.

“These are things we have heard before, but when you hear it from the top guy on sanctions, it’s encouraging,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Cohen stressed in the interview with Haaretz the depth of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.

“We have today and over the past years had very close cooperation with the Israeli government across a range of our sanctions programs,” he said. “They are creative. They are supportive and we will continue to consult with the Israelis.”

Echoing those remarks, the Israeli official described the discussions as “daily ping-pong”.

Cohen made similar comments to Army Radio, a major Israeli broadcaster, during his 36-hour visit, when he was to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior security staff.

In a speech last week, Netanyahu said world powers must both beef up sanctions and demand an immediate end to all uranium enrichment by Iran, whose mid-level 20 percent purification has been the focus of earlier negotiations.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal and many international experts, including the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, have voiced doubt in the ability of its conventional forces to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities.

The Israelis have hinted that delaying Iran’s progress could justify a unilateral strike. Ensuing Iranian reprisals would risk drawing in the United States, which has not ruled out force against Tehran but is loath to launch a new military campaign in the Muslim world.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy

Satellite images show crews hiding evidence at Iran nuclear site


New satellite images show possible recent nuclear activity at the Parchin facility in Iran as well as attempts to hide evidence of past activity.

A May 25 image of the facility east of Tehran revealed “ground-scraping activity” and the presence of bulldozers, according to diplomats quoted by international news services who attended a closed-door briefing by United Nations nuclear agency officials on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Institute for Science and International Security posted a similar image on its website. Its image showed that two buildings that previously had been located on the site were razed, according to reports.

Last March, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, the nuclear watchdog of the U.N., satellite images showed crews and vehicles cleaning up radioactive evidence of a test nuclear explosion.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Germany and Great Britain jointly called on Iran to grant inspectors access to the site. An IAEA report last year said that construction developments at Parchin are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” Iran has dismissed the charges against Parchin as “childish” and “ridiculous,” Reuters reported.

This most recent image is believed to be further evidence that Iran is “sanitizing” the site of any incriminating evidence before possibly allowing IAEA inspectors into the complex.

At Wednesday’s briefing, IAEA deputy director Gen. Herman Nackaerts presented the satellite images indicating that at least two small buildings had been removed.

Nackaerts did not elaborate on what he believed was happening at the site, apart from reiterating that the agency needed to go there to clarify the issue, diplomats told reporters.

Higher grade Iranian enriched uranium uncovered


Evidence found in an underground bunker in Iran could signal the country’s having moved one step closer toward the uranium threshold needed to make nuclear arms, International Atomic Energy Agency diplomats said today.

IAEA inspectors found traces of uranium enriched up to 27 percent at Iran’s Fordo enrichment plant, the Associated Press reported.

While still well below the 90-percent needed for a nuclear weapon’s fissile core, the figure is Iran’s highest-known enrichment grade yet. It also is well above the Islamic Republic’s main stockpile, which can only be used for fuel at around 3.5 percent.

The diplomats stressed this did not necessarily mean that Iran was pushing ahead toward weapons-grade level material. One possible explanation, they explained, was that the centrifuges that produce enriched uranium initially over-enriched at the start of the process as technicians adjusted their output.

Calls to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, were rejected and the switchboard operator at the Iranian mission said he was not available. IAEA media officials said the agency had no comment.

Iran started enriching to 20 percent last year, mostly at Fordo, saying it needed the material to fuel a research reactor and for medical purposes.

Israel wary of expected Iran nuclear deal


Israel expressed deep suspicion on Tuesday about an expected deal between the U.N. nuclear agency and Iran, suggesting Tehran’s aim was to wriggle out of sanctions rather than make real concessions ahead of wider atomic talks with world powers.

“Iran has proven over the years its lack of credibility, its dishonesty. Telling the truth is not its strong side and therefore we have to be suspicious of them all the time and examine the agreement that is being formulated,” Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel Radio.

He and other cabinet members spoke after the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he expected to sign an agreement with Tehran soon to unblock an IAEA investigation into suspicions Iran has worked on designing nuclear arms.

Iran meets six world powers in Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss what the West and Israel suspect is its drive to develop the means to make atom bombs.

Tehran has returned to talks, after a hiatus of more than a year, under tighter western sanctions and constant Israeli and U.S. threats of military strikes on Iran, which says its often secretive projects are for purely peaceful ends.

“It appears that the Iranians are trying to reach a ‘technical agreement’ which will create the impression of progress in the talks, in order to remove some of the pressure before the talks tomorrow in Baghdad (and) put off the intensification of sanctions,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.

Asked whether war on Iran was still a possibility given apparent progress on the diplomatic track, Vilnai said: “One shouldn’t get confused for even a moment – everything is on the table.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that “the leading nations of the world must show force and clarity, and not weakness” in their dealings with Iran.

Netanyahu has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, remove enriched material and dismantle its underground, bunkered nuclear facility near the city of Qom.

Widely assumed to be the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal, Israel is determined to stop hostile neighbors acquiring weapons that it fears could be used to wipe out the Jewish state.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, predicted that Iran would take a conciliatory tack at the Baghdad talks while not abandoning its goal of becoming a nuclear power.

“They will be willing to show what appears to be flexibility as long as it doesn’t affect their strategic direction, meaning that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons if that decision is made,” Gilad told Army Radio.

“Today they have enough uranium, raw material, for the bomb, they have the missiles that can carry them and they have the knowledge to assemble a warhead on a missile,” he said.

“They have not yet decided to do this because they are worried about the response.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

U.N. nuclear chief holds talks in Tehran, hopes for deal


The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief held rare talks in Tehran on Monday after voicing hope for a deal to investigate suspected atomic bomb research – a gesture Iran might make to try to get international sanctions relaxed and deflect threats of war.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano began discussions with the head of Iran’s nuclear energy organization, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, a few hours after his pre-dawn arrival, according to ISNA news agency.

Amano, who was on his first trip to Iran since taking office in 2009, a period marked by rising tension between the IAEA and Tehran, was also due to meet Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Monday. There was no word on the course of the talks by mid-afternoon.

“I really think this is the right time to reach agreement. Nothing is certain but I stay positive,” Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat with long experience in nuclear proliferation and disarmament affairs, said before departure from Vienna airport. He added that “good progress” had already been made.

But while Amano scheduled Monday’s talks with Iran at such short notice that diplomats said a deal on improved IAEA access in Iran seemed near, few see Tehran going far enough to convince the West to roll back swiftly on punitive sanctions when its negotiators meet global power envoys in Baghdad on Wednesday.

“We are not going to do anything concrete in exchange for nice words,” a Western diplomat said of the Baghdad meeting, the outcome of a big power session with Iran in Istanbul last month that ended a diplomatic freeze of more than a year.

Two days after seeing Amano, Jalili will hold talks in the Iraqi capital with Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief heading a six-power coalition comprised of the five U.N. Security Council permanent members – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – plus Germany.

By dangling the prospect of enhanced cooperation with U.N. inspectors, diplomats say, Iran might aim for leverage for the broader talks where the United States and its allies want Tehran to curb works they say are a cover for developing atomic bombs.

Pressure for a deal has risen. Escalating Western sanctions on Iran’s economically vital energy exports, and threats by Israel and the United States of last-ditch military action, have pushed up world oil prices, compounding the economic misery wrought by debt crises in many industrialized countries.

HOPE VIES WITH MISTRUST

Some diplomats and analysts said Amano, given a recent history of mistrustful relations with Iran, would go to Tehran only if he believed a framework agreement to give his inspectors freer hands in their investigation was close. Iran has been stonewalling IAEA requests for better access for four years.

“Amano would not have travelled to Tehran had he not been provided with assurances that progress could be made. If he returns to Vienna empty-handed, the embarrassment will be more damaging for Tehran than the agency,” said Ali Vaez, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“However, if the IAEA is satisfied with Tehran’s cooperation, Iranian negotiators will have a new trump card to play at the negotiating table in Baghdad.”

The U.N. watchdog is seeking access to sites, nuclear officials and scientists and documents to shed light on work in Iran applicable to developing the capability to make nuclear weapons, especially the Parchin military complex outside Tehran.

Two meetings between Iran and senior Amano aides in Tehran in January and February failed to produce any notable progress. But both sides were more upbeat after another round of talks in Vienna last week, raising hopes for a deal.

“We need to keep up the momentum. There has been good progress during the recent round of discussions between Iran and the IAEA,” Amano said, stressing that he did not expect to visit Parchin during his short, one-day stay in Tehran.

“We regard the visit … as a gesture of goodwill,” Salehi said. He hoped for agreement on a “new modality” to work with the IAEA that would “help clear up the ambiguities”.

DOUBTS

Yet while an Iranian agreement on a so-called “structured approach” outlining the ground rules on how to address the IAEA’s questions would be welcome, it remains to be seen how and when it will be implemented in practice.

“We’ll see if the Iranians agree to let the agency visit Parchin. I have my doubts, no matter what any agreement says on paper,” said one Western envoy ahead of Amano’s visit to Iran.

Such a deal would also not be enough in itself to allay international concerns. World powers want Iran to curb uranium enrichment, which can yield fuel for nuclear power plants or for nuclear bombs, depending on the level of refinement.

Iran, to general disbelief from its Israeli and Western adversaries, insists its nuclear program is intended only to generate electricity in a country that is one of world’s top oil exporters and to produce isotopes for cancer treatment.

Unlike its arch-enemy Israel, assumed to harbor the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, Iran is a signatory to treaties that oblige it to be transparent with the IAEA.

ISRAEL SKEPTICAL

Leaders of the Group of Eight, worried about the effect of high oil prices on their faltering economies, turned up the heat on Iran on Saturday, signaling readiness to tap into emergency oil stocks quickly this summer if tougher new sanctions on Tehran threaten to dry up supplies of crude.

Israel, convinced a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a mortal threat, has – like the United States – not ruled out air strikes to stop Iran’s atomic progress if it deems diplomacy at an end.

Israel believes Iran is using the talks only to buy time.

In Baghdad, the powers’ main goal is to get Iran to stop the higher-grade uranium enrichment it started two years ago and has since expanded, shortening the time needed for any weapons bid.

“What the powers are proposing right now is a kind of interim arrangement … (but) this certainly is not sufficient to stop the military (nuclear) project in Iran,” said Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon.

“Our fear is that from Iran’s perspective this is a sort of sacrifice of a pawn in a chess game in order to protect the king. We are not voicing satisfaction with this move, if it is the final move,” he told Israel Radio.

Iran says it needs uranium enriched to a fissile concentration of 20 percent for its medical isotope reactor. Enrichment to 5 percent of fissile purity is suitable for power plant fuel, while 90 percent constitutes fuel for bombs.

The IAEA wants Iran to address issues raised by an agency report last year that revealed intelligence pointing to past and possibly ongoing activity to help develop nuclear explosives.

Iran says the intelligence is fabricated, and has so far resisted requests for inspectors to examine Parchin, maintaining that it is a purely conventional military installation outside the writ of nuclear inspectors.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, William Maclean in London, Patrick Markey in Baghdad, Ori Lewis and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Amid new Iran nuke rumors, Barak and Panetta to meet


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington amid reports that Iran may have achieved the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel has said that such a capability is a “red line” that could trigger military action.

The defense chiefs are scheduled to meet Thursday.

The Associated Press reported this week that it had obtained a drawing of an explosives containment chamber said to exist on an Iranian military site. The chamber’s only known use would be to test nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied reports that it is seeking a nuclear weapon. Western experts have said the Islamic Republic appears to be moving closer to such a capability.

The Obama administration has endeavored to keep Israel from striking while it pursues sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to retreat from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Iran nuclear concession would test big power unity


Facing an imminent toughening of sanctions, Iran is hinting at a readiness to give some ground in its long nuclear stand-off with world powers, but any flexibility could split their ranks and lead to protracted uncertainty about how to respond.

The stakes are high, for the longer the impasse goes on, the closer Iran will get to the technological threshold of capability to develop atomic bombs, raising the odds of last-ditch Israeli military strikes on its arch-foe and the risk of a new Middle East war a troubled global economy cannot afford.

A succession of optimistic statements by Iranian officials and academics has raised speculation that Tehran may offer concessions to its six main negotiating partners in talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, a move that could ease regional tensions and soothe fears of a fresh spike in oil prices.

Such an offer would also be closely studied by Israel, which has threatened to use force to destroy nuclear installations the Islamic Republic says are purely civilian in nature but the West suspects are geared to gaining a weapons capability.

Any talk of a diplomatic breakthrough, though, is almost certainly premature.

Whatever concrete gestures are tabled by Iran would test anew the cohesiveness of joint Western, Russian and Chinese efforts to prevent an Iranian atom bomb capability, and might simply lead to months of inconclusive consultations among its interlocutors about how to answer Tehran’s move, analysts say.

Differences in how best to match an Iranian offer – for example by suspending some sanctions in return for Iran shelving enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, a level that worries U.N. nuclear experts – could snag efforts to turn any such initiative into meaningful movement towards negotiations.

“Don’t expect a ‘Kumbaya’ (celebratory) moment. It’s going to be a poker play” between Iran and the major powers, French analyst Bruno Tertrais said. “I would be surprised if what happens in Baghdad was more than an agreement on interim steps.”

ISOLATION

There is “no doubt ” that Iran’s policy would be to split the six, known as the P5+1, says Dennis Ross, until November a chief Middle East strategy adviser at the White House.

“I also have no doubt that they probably will put something on the table that they think will be attractive to some of the members of the P5+1,” Ross told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

He said one such move could be Iranian assurances on a halt to stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium.

That level, well beyond the 5 percent of fissile purity suitable for running civilian nuclear power plants, is intended only to replenish the fuel stocks of a medical isotope reactor, Iran says. But it also moves Iran farther down the road towards the highly enriched grade of uranium usable in bombs.

One Western government assessment is that it would take Iran two to three years to manufacture a usable nuclear weapon in the event that authorities in Tehran decided to attempt that task.

Analysts and some diplomats have said Iran and the global powers must compromise for any chance of a long-term settlement, suggesting Tehran could be allowed to continue limited low-level enrichment if it accepts more intrusive U.N. inspections.

But Iran has often managed to limit its diplomatic and economic isolation by sowing rifts among the six states spearheading international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, leading to a watering-down of U.N. sanctions.

Western analysts are on alert for any new such gambit now.

A united front among Russia, China, the United States, France, Germany and Britain is the most powerful leverage the outside world has in ensuring Iranian compliance with international safeguards intended to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Western analysts say.

And yet that unity has always been fragile.

Russia and China, which both have strong trade ties to Iran, have supported four rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed since 2006 on Iran over its refusal to suspend enrichment-related activity and grant unfettered U.N. inspections to resolve suspicions of military dimensions to its nuclear program.

But Moscow and Beijing criticized the United States and the European Union last year for meting out extra unilateral sanctions against Iran. Russia has made clear its opposition to any further U.N. Security Council measures against Tehran.

“I think P5+1 will have significant problems whenever it comes to Iran actually moving and how they respond,” a European diplomat told Reuters. “At this moment in time it is easy and nothing has been promised by Iran … but I think it will become very difficult and very tense on the P5+1 side once they have to start reacting to an Iranian step.”

“EARLY TEST OF UNITY”

Mark Fitzpatrick of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said an Iranian demand for an easing of sanctions in return for its concessions “will present an early test of P5+1 unity. For the West, any lifting of sanctions would require significant limitations on the enrichment program.”

There is little debate about what may be encouraging Iran to indicate new flexibility: Iran, analysts say, wishes to stave off the planned July 1 start to a European Union ban on imports of Iranian oil, a significant measure since the EU takes a fifth of the country’s petroleum shipments.

But there is plenty of speculation about the extent to which Russia and China are prepared to reward any Iranian shift.

Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute said divergence between Russia and China and its other partners would likely emerge on the price the world should demand for dropping the insistence, enshrined in the Security Council resolutions, that Iran cease any enrichment whatsoever.

He said the United States would want to see the dismantling of an enrichment plant buried deep under a mountain at Fordow south of Tehran, the Iranian nuclear site best sheltered from any possible air strike.

“The Russians and Chinese may recognize that this is unlikely, and may accept Iranian offers short of this,” he said.

“So we should expect to see Iran attempt to split the Russians and Chinese from the others by offering something concrete and significant, but short of dismantlement.”

Tehran has ruled out closing the bunkered Fordow site.

SIGNS OF NEW IRANIAN APPROACH

Diplomats and analysts say an agreement is still far off, but the signs are growing that Iran’s leaders are changing their approach and preparing public opinion for a potential shift.

Tehran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton University in the United States, said last month Iran and major nations had a “historic opportunity” to settle their decade-old nuclear dispute.

On May 2, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadehhe said in a speech in Vienna: “We continue to be optimistic about upcoming negotiations.”

In April, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran was “ready to resolve all issues very quickly and simply”.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran cleaning building of nuclear traces, U.S. institute alleges


New satellite imagery analyzed by a U.S. security think tank shows that Iran may be clearing nuclear evidence from a building at a military site.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security believes the Iranians are cleaning the inside of the the Parchin military complex near Tehran based on images taken last month by a commercial satellite imagery company. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has asked to visit the facility because it suspects that research on a nuclear weapon may have taken place there.

The building is believed to contain an explosive chamber used to carry out nuclear weapons-related experiments.

Satellite images taken in recent months did not show similar activity at the building, according to the institute.

The IAEA said in a report last year that it believed Iran had built a containment chamber at Parchin in which to conduct high-explosives tests, according to Reuters. It will ask Iran again next week during talks in Iran to allow inspectors to visit Parchin.

Biden: Israel still has time to strike Iran [VIDEO]


Israel still has time to strike Iran and the right to decide for itself whether to do so, Vice President Joe Biden said.

Biden, appearing Tuesday in Atlanta at the annual convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said “the window has not closed in terms of the Israelis if they choose to act on their own militarily.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that Israel has until the fall to strike; the Obama administration has been pressing Israel to give time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

Story continues after the jump.

Biden made the case that Obama’s strategies have worked, but said the decision to strike must be Israel’s.

“I would not contract out my security to anybody, even a loyal, loyal, loyal friend like the United States,” he said.

Biden also said that Israel’s perception of Iran as an existential threat was “justifiable.” He warned Iran that its window was closing for a diplomatic way out of its isolation because of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The vice president also called efforts to delegitimize Israel “the most significant assault” on Israel since its independence.

Barak: Iran could seek short build time for bomb


Iran’s nuclear strategy could eventually allow it to build an atomic bomb with just 60 days’ notice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Friday.

His remarks elaborate on long-held Israeli concerns that Iran is playing for time even as it engages world powers in negotiations aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment drive. Talks are due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.

“They are currently trying to achieve immunity for the nuclear program,” Barak told the Israel Hayom newspaper.

“If they arrive at military nuclear capability, at a weapon, or a demonstrated capability, or a threshold status in which they could manufacture a bomb within 60 days – they will achieve a different kind of immunity, regime immunity.”

Iran insists that its often secretive uranium enrichment is for peaceful energy and medical needs. At higher levels of purification, such projects can yield fuel for warheads, but Israel and the United States agree Iran has not taken that step.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year issued a report detailing alleged Iranian research and development activities that were relevant to nuclear weapons, lending independent weight to Western suspicions.

Barak has said Iran is holding off until it can dig in behind defenses sufficient to withstand threatened Israeli or U.S. air strikes on its nuclear facilities.

His 60-day timeline for potential Iranian warhead production appeared aimed at skeptics both at home and abroad of Israel’s alarm who say it is too early to rattle sabers.

Israeli leaders believe the diplomatic drive, which involves the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has a low chance of success, and suggest that Iran’s rulers seek an atomic bomb as insurance against outside intervention.

Some prominent Israelis have questioned the strategic value of a pre-emptive strike, with former spy chief Yuval Diskin last week accusing the government of promulgating the “false impression” it had the means of halting Iran.

“This is not so. We have been talking all the time about a delay,” said Barak, indicating that Israel could not eradicate Iran’s nuclear program, but saw value in forestalling it.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, but many experts – including U.S. military chief, General Martin Dempsey – have voiced doubt that its conventional forces would be able to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed and fortified facilities.

The idea that some countries with civilian atomic projects might then use them for military purposes is commonplace, letting states keep their options open while not necessarily violating their non-proliferation commitments.

A leaked diplomatic cable from 2008 quoted senior U.S. State Department official John Rood saying Japan was “not a nuclear threshold country…but rather is ‘over the threshold’ and could develop nuclear weapons quickly if it wanted to” should it feel the need to vie with its nuclear-armed Asian neighbors.

Barak, who leads the sole centrist party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government, has in the past sounded sanguine about Israel’s ability to deter a nuclear-armed Iran from attacking.

But with an Israeli election expected in September, and given Iran’s nuclear advances as well as Western war jitters, Barak has publicly closed ranks with the hawkish Netanyahu.

In Friday’s interview with the pro-government daily, Barak said Iran might regard trying to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons as worth the risk of catastrophic retaliation.

Under such thinking, he said, “after the exchange of strikes, Islam would remain and Israel would no longer be what it was”.

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan

Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb


Israel’s military chief said he does not believe Iran will decide to build an atomic bomb and called its leaders “very rational” — comments that clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment.

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz’s remarks, in an interview published on Wednesday in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, drew little attention in Israel on its annual remembrance day for fallen soldiers, when political discourse is suspended.

But they will add fuel to an internal debate on the prospects of Iran weaponizing its uranium enrichment program and the wisdom and risks of any Israeli military strike to try to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power.

“Iran is moving step-by-step towards a point where it will be able to decide if it wants to make a nuclear bomb. It has not decided yet whether to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

But, he said, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could opt to produce nuclear weapons should be believe that Iran would not face reprisal.

“In my opinion, he will be making a huge mistake if he does that and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

“I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who at some moments may make different calculations, is a dangerous thing.”

Israel, believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has not ruled out military action against Iran should economic sanctions fail to curb its nuclear program, saying all options were on the table.

Only last week, in a speech during Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day, Netanyahu said: “Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”

Tehran denies seeking the bomb, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy purposes and that its nuclear program is a threat to no one.

Speaking on CNN on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would not want to bet “the security of the world on Iran’s rational behaviour”. A “militant Islamic regime”, he said, “can put their ideology before their survival”.

The portrayal of Iran as irrational – willing to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon even if it means the destruction of the Islamic Republic in retaliatory strikes – could bolster a case for pre-emptive bombing to take out its atomic facilities.

Netanyahu had already been stung at home by his former spymaster, Meir Dagan, who said that such an Israeli strike on Iran would be a “ridiculous” idea.

Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Gantz’s description of Iranian leaders as rational was “quite an interesting turnabout”.

“Hopefully, it is going to reduce the incentives for any sort of pre-emptive or preventive military action, at least for the time being,” Kile said.

The United States has also not ruled out military action as a last resort. But many allies of Washington, and even some senior U.S. officials, fear such an attack could ignite a broader war and only temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear advances.

Gantz’s assessment appeared to be in step with the view of the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey. He said in a CNN interview in February he believed Iran was a “rational actor” and it would be premature to take military action against it.

Israeli political sources said at the time that the remarks by Dempsey – who also suggested Israel’s armed forces could not deliver lasting damage to Iranian nuclear sites – had angered Netanyahu.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised international concern about a possible Israeli strike several months ago when he spoke about time running out for effective Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear sites buried deep underground.

And Netanyahu, while noting that Iran has made no apparent decision to begin constructing a bomb, has voiced impatience with the pace of nuclear talks that began this month between Tehran and six world powers, the first such negotiations in more than a year.

“Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only, or the world, perhaps us too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle,” Gantz said.

However, he also said international pressure on Iran “is beginning to bear fruit, both on the diplomatic level and on the economic sanctions level”.

Netanyahu said on CNN the sanctions were “certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy but so far they haven’t rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota.

“Unfortunately, that’s not achieved by talks in which Iran has one goal, to stall, delay, run out the clock; that’s basically what they’re doing.”

Gantz, a lanky former paratrooper who has served as Israel’s military attache in Washington, was asked in the Haaretz interview what impact his view would have on government decision-making on Iran.

“Whatever weight the government decides to ascribe it,” he said.

“I say my opinion according to my own professional truth and my strategic analysis. I will say it sharply: I do not forget my professional ethics. The government will decide after it hears the professional echelon and the army will carry out, in a faithful and determined manner, any decision that is made.”

Kile said he was surprised Gantz had spoken out, “because normally the Israeli military leadership on the nuclear issue has been quite subdued”, with former intelligence officials “coming out and trying to cool … the possible Israeli impetus towards military action”.

Gantz took over as chief of staff a year ago but has been less outspoken on strategic issues than his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi. He was not the first choice for the job; the preferred candidate, Yoav Gallant, had to bow out because of a property scandal.

In at least one turning point in Israeli history, the government chose to ignore a strong warning from the military’s top general about the intentions of a long-time adversary.

In 1977, then-chief of staff Mordechai Gur famously cautioned the cabinet that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s offer to visit Jerusalem could be a smokescreen for war preparations. Sadat’s trip led to a peace treaty in 1979.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Barak: Israel did not promise not to attack Iran


Israel did not promise the United States that it would abstain from attacking Iran while negotiations are going on, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“We are not committing to anything,” Barak told Israel’s Army Radio during an interview from Bogota, Colombia. He added that Israel’s dialogue on the subject with America is “direct and open.”

Barak said the current negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, need to be “purposeful and results-oriented. They need to clarify if Iran is genuinely willing to stop its military nuclear program or not.

“For this we don’t need months upon months. It requires a few direct meetings where all the demands are put on the table. There you can see if the other side is playing for time, drawing it out through the year, or if indeed the other side is genuinely striving to find a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 15 that the decision to continue the talks in five weeks in Baghdad amounts to a “freebie” for Iran, allowing them to continue to enrich uranium “without any limitation, any inhibition.”

Barak, who is on a five-day visit to Colombia and the United States, said that Israel believes the talks “will probably not have an impact or bring the Iranians to cease their nuclear program.”

“Of course we will be happy to be proven wrong,” he added.

Barak said, “The world must find a way of preventing this; not for Israel, but for the stability and peace of the world.”

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the West fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Obama responded to Netanyahu’s “freebie” accusation on April 15, saying, “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Barak was scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, on April 19 in Washington.

Obama responds to Netanyahu’s Iran ‘freebie’ comment


President Obama responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that world powers gave Iran a “freebie” by agreeing to hold more talks.

“We’re going to keep on seeing if we make progress. Now, the clocking is ticking and I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process. But so far at least we haven’t given away anything,” Obama said late Sunday during a news conference in Cartagena, Colombia.

“The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks,” Obama added.

Talks between Iran and the six world powers – the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany – on Iran’s nuclear program resumed on April 14 after more than a year’s hiatus. The sides agreed to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad.

“My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie. It’s got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition,” Netanyahu said Sunday in Israel.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the Western world fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Iran, world powers set for high-stakes nuclear talks


Iran and the six world powers prepared on Friday for rare talks aimed at easing fears that a deepening dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program could plunge the Middle East into a new war.

Officials from Iran and the six major powers arrived in Istanbul ahead of Saturday’s bid to restart stalled diplomacy following months of soaring tension and persistent speculation that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear sites.

The meeting is widely seen as a chance for the powers – the United States, France, Russia, China, Britain and Germany – and Iran to halt a downward diplomatic spiral and start to seek ways out of years of deadlock.

Western diplomats have expressed cautious optimism that Iran, which has seen its lifeblood oil exports squeezed by increasingly tough sanctions, may finally be ready to discuss curbs to its nuclear program to ease the pressure.

But Iran’s English-language state television, Press TV, cited sources close to Iran’s delegation as saying Tehran saw “few encouraging points” in the remarks of U.S. and European officials. It did not elaborate.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability and Israel has hinted at pre-emptive military strikes to prevent its arch foe from obtaining such arms.

Iran, which has promised to put forward “new initiatives” in Istanbul, says its nuclear program is peaceful and has repeatedly ruled out suspending it.

Diplomats and analysts played down any expectations of a major breakthrough in the meeting, but said it may pave the ground for further negotiations to resolve the decade-long row.

Western officials have made clear their immediate priority is to convince Tehran to cease the higher-grade uranium enrichment it began in 2010. It has since expanded that work, shortening the time it would need for any weapons “break out”.

Iran has signalled some flexibility over halting its enrichment to a fissile purity of 20 percent – compared with the 5 percent level required for nuclear power plants – but also suggests it is not ready to do so yet.

The talks “will begin a very complex negotiation, and for several months diplomacy will take some pressure off oil prices and help keep the chance of Israeli strikes very low,” said Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group.

But in the end, Kupchan said renewed diplomacy was unlikely to yield a resolution to the crisis, which has helped push global oil prices higher this year.

If Iran were to accept scaling back its uranium enrichment program, it would probably expect to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions, for example a European Union oil embargo due to take effect in less than three months time.

But one Western official appeared to dismiss this: “That decision is taken. We would expect the oil embargo to come into force on July 1 and it would be a surprise if Iran did something that merited moving on that.”

Iran’s deputy chief negotiator Ali Baqeri held talks with a senior Chinese official in Istanbul and was also due to meet a Russian delegate.

The formal negotiations with the six powers and their chief representative, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, will get underway on Saturday, but Ashton and Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are expected to meet over dinner on Friday evening.

The last time the two sides met, also in Istanbul in January last year, they could not even agree an agenda.

Both sides signalled in the run-up to Saturday’s discussions their intent to give diplomacy a real chance.

“We hope that this first round will produce a conducive environment for concrete results through a sustained process,”

Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said in an email.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a rare opinion piece in a U.S. newspaper, said his country hoped that all sides would commit to comprehensive dialogue and that negotiators make “genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust”.

Defying intensifying sanctions, Iran has continued to expand its uranium enrichment program – activity which can have both civilian and military purposes – and experts say it now has enough material for four atomic bombs if processed much further.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said getting Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment would be an interim goal “to put a lid on the most troublesome” aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.

A long-term deal will have to “provide confidence that Iran cannot quickly produce nuclear weapons,” he told Reuters, adding this would require both better monitoring of Iran’s nuclear work and limits on its uranium enrichment and stockpiles.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian, Jonathon Burch, Alexandra Hudson, Ayla Jean Yackley and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jon Hemming

Iran to offer ‘new initiatives’ in nuclear talks


Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said his country was prepared to offer “new initiatives” at upcoming nuclear talks in Istanbul.

“Iran’s representatives will participate in the negotiations with new initiatives,” Saeed Jalili was quoted as saying Wednesday by the official Iranian news agency, IRNA. “We hope that the P5+1 countries will also enter talks with constructive approaches.”

Iran is scheduled to hold a fresh round of negotiations about its nuclear program with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—plus Germany, the so-called P5+1, beginning Friday in Turkey.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the United States and Europe would open the negotiations by demanding the closing of the Fordo nuclear enrichment facility, which is buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom, and the suspension of uranium production efforts considered close to weapons-grade. President Obama has called upcoming talks Iran’s “last chance.”

World powers to meet Iran in Istanbul this week


Nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers will be held this week in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced.

The talks announced Sunday are scheduled to be held April 14 in Istanbul and will include six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Also on Sunday, Iran said it will not close its Fordo nuclear power facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the holy city of Oom, and it will not give up higher-level uranium enrichment, which are reported to be key demands that the world powers will present at the meeting.

Those demands are “irrational,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, told ISNA news agency in an interview published Sunday.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground. They should change their behavior and language,” he told the official news agency.

The demands were revealed Saturday in a front-page New York Times article, which quoted anonymous United States and European Union diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Iran is using the upcoming talks to “delay and deceive.”

He called for Iran to dismantle Oom, completely halt uranium enrichment and remove higher level enriched uranium from the country.

West seeks to pressure Iran at U.N. nuclear meet


Western powers hope to win Russian and Chinese backing for rebuking Iran at the U.N. nuclear agency next week over Tehran’s failure to address mounting fears that it is secretly bent on acquiring nuclear weapons capability, diplomats say.

Seeking to ward off any such diplomatic action, Iran has warned its opponents and others against making “provocative statements” at the March 5-9 meeting of the 35-nation governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Western envoys say the lack of progress at talks this year between the IAEA and Iran and Tehran’s acceleration of sensitive atomic activity mean the board should respond to the country’s defiance of increased international pressure.

But they make clear they want broad support for any new board resolution and especially from Russia and China, which have backed four rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006 but criticised unilateral Western punitive steps against Iran.

An IAEA resolution, while containing no concrete measures, would be aimed at sending a united message to Iran that it must stop stonewalling the U.N. agency’s investigation into possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme, diplomats say.

“We think there needs to be a resolution that makes clear … that Iran needs to do more, a lot more, to comply with the agency’s requirements,” a senior Western official said.

He said Iran’s lack of cooperation with a senior IAEA team, during two rounds of meetings in Tehran in January and February, represented a “gigantic slap in the face” for the IAEA.

But an ambassador of a non-Western state showed a lack of enthusiasm, saying a resolution that was adopted at the most recent board meeting in November, and voiced increasing concern about Iran’s nuclear programme, was still “relevant”.

It was more important, he said, to create “favourable conditions” for a resumption of wider nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six major powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

They are discussing how to react to an Iranian offer last month to restart talks which have been frozen for more than a year, as Iran presses ahead with its nuclear programme.

A report by the IAEA last week said Iran was significantly stepping up uranium enrichment, a finding that sent oil prices higher on fears tensions between Tehran and the West could escalate into military conflict.

Israel has threatened to launch strikes to prevent Iran getting the bomb, saying Tehran’s continued technological progress means it could soon pass into a “zone of immunity”. U.S. officials say sanctions should be given time to work.

IRAN’S “OUT OF THE BLUE” OFFER

The IAEA’s report showed Iran had tripled monthly output of uranium enriched to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, well above what is usually needed to fuel nuclear power plants.

Iran says the more highly refined uranium will replenish the dwindling special fuel stocks of a reactor that produces medicinal isotopes.

But 20 percent enrichment, experts say, represents most of the effort needed to attain the 90 percent threshold required for nuclear explosions.

Much of this work is carried out deep inside a mountain at Iran’s underground Fordow facility to better shield it against military strikes, and it is preparing for a further expansion.

Iran is now believed to be capable of increasing its output capacity of 20 pct uranium four-fold “over a fairly short period of time”, a Western diplomat said.

The IAEA report showed total production so far of this higher-grade material at about 110 kg, roughly half way to the quantity Western experts say would be sufficient for one bomb.

Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking weapons of mass destruction, saying it needs higher-grade uranium for the Tehran research reactor making isotopes for cancer care.

Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that “substantial progress” was made in the Tehran meetings.

“There shouldn’t be any provocative statements. There should be encouraging statements for Iran and the agency to continue the work,” he told reporters this week.

During the two rounds of talks in the Iranian capital, Iran did not grant IAEA requests to visit the Parchin military facility, seen as central for its investigation.

The November IAEA report said the agency had information that Iran had built a large containment chamber at Parchin to conduct high-explosives tests which, it said, were “strong indicators of possible weapon development.”

Vienna-based diplomats said the agency team at the talks had turned down a last-minute offer for them to go to another site, in the region of Marivan, also mentioned in the IAEA report as it detailed research activities relevant for atomic bombs.

But that offer came “out of the blue” and the agency team was completely unprepared to go there, one envoy said.

The IAEA board was also expected to touch on North Korea’s announcement this week that it would suspend major elements of its nuclear weapons programme and allow U.N. inspectors back for the first time in three years.

On another sensitive nuclear issue, diplomats said Syria had once again made clear, in an exchange of letters with the IAEA, that it was not in a position to engage with the agency in its long-stalled investigation into Damascus’s atomic activity.

“I simply can’t imagine that there is any capacity in Syria at the moment to mobilise any sort of practical response on this,” the Western diplomat said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing campaign to stamp out a popular uprising.

Poll: Little support in Israel for solo strike on Iran


A wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it was carried out with U.S. agreement, an opinion poll showed on Thursday.

The survey by the University of Maryland and the Israeli Dahaf Institute was released before talks next week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama on Iran’s nuclear program.

The poll found that 34 percent of the 500 people surveyed believed that Israel should not strike Iran and 42 percent said it should attack only if the United States backed the decision.

Only 19 percent believed Israel should attack even without the support of Washington, which said on Wednesday that diplomacy and increased sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions have time to work.

Netanyahu and Obama are to meet at the White House on Monday amid U.S. concern that Israel, which has cautioned that time is running out for effective military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could attack them.

Though both Israel and the United States have not ruled out the use of military force against Iran, U.S. officials have said such action would be premature and could destabilize the Middle East.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, not to build a weapon. Israel, widely believed to be the region’s only atomic power, has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence.

Writing by Maayan Lubell