Iran starts dismantling nuclear equipment, U.N. report says


Iran has disconnected almost a quarter of its uranium-enriching centrifuges in less than a month, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday, suggesting it is racing to implement an agreement restricting its nuclear activities. 

Under the July deal, sanctions against Iran will be lifted in exchange for measures including slashing the number of centrifuges in operation and reducing its stockpile of uranium.

Officials have been speculating about the speed at which Iran can dismantle the centrifuges, sensitive machines that spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium to levels at which it can be used as fuel in power stations or, potentially, weapons.

Disconnecting and moving the machines is a time-consuming process if it is to be done without damaging the equipment, making it one of the steps most likely to delay implementation of the deal, and therefore the lifting of sanctions.

“They have been dismantling centrifuges that did not contain hexafluoride,” the senior diplomat said, referring to uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges.

“Dismantling centrifuges that have or have had hexafluoride is a much more complicated thing than the clean ones.” 

A confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency to its Board of Governors, seen by Reuters, said Iran had moved around 4,500 centrifuges from their positions at the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites between Oct. 18 and Nov. 15.

HOW FAST CAN THEY GO?

The speed at which Iran dismantles the centrifuges is central to the question of whether Tehran can implement the deal reached in July with the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and China before parliamentary elections in February. 

Under the July deal, Iran agreed to reduce its number of installed centrifuges to around 6,100 from 19,000, according to the United States. Of the remaining 6,100, only about 5,100 will be used to enrich uranium.

Iran was also carrying out an annual inventory at all its enrichment sites, meaning that enrichment had stopped across the country, the report said.

“This is the first time at this point in time that none of the three enrichment plants are operating,” the senior diplomat said.

Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium had increased by 460.2 kg in the past three months to 8,305.6 kg, the report said. Under the deal with major powers, that stockpile must be slashed to no more than 300 kg.

The senior diplomat, however, said the increase was a normal fluctuation.

“There is nothing special in that. It's the normal way,” he said.

Obama’s Iran Framework – Dangerous to U.S., Israel & Mideast


The deal signed between the P5+1 and Iran last week over Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a defeat for the cause of stopping Iran becoming a nuclear power, for heading off a Mideast nuclear arms race, for forestalling existential threats to Israel, even threats to America – not to mention that it will dramatically increase Iranian funding for terrorism.
 
The deal doesn’t dismantle Iran’s centrifuges or its nuclear facilities; doesn’t terminate Iran’s R&D on centrifuges and missiles, doesn’t provide for unimpeded inspections; doesn’t require Iranian disclosure of its weaponization program; doesn’t require the removal of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium; and doesn’t allow inspections of military installations, like Parchin, where many experts believe nuclear R&D is in progress.
 
To the contrary, Iran will be able to continue enrichment with 5,060 centrifuges for the next decade, an active infrastructure that can raise enrichment to weaponization levels in a matter of weeks. 
 
Even Barack Obama has conceded the deal’s likely result by describing it as a “relevant fear … that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
 
Worse, even if this deal stopped Iran going nuclear, Iran will receive tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to increase funding to terrorist groups like Hamas, Hizballah and Syria’s Assad regime. 
 
Moreover:
 
  • President Obama says the Arak plutonium facility – something only required of a nuclear weapons program – will be re-purposed. But continued construction of facility components off-site is still not outlawed. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif has stated that Iran has agreed only to Arak being “modernized.”
  • In December 2013, President Obama said, correctly, that the Iranian underground nuclear facility at Fordow was unnecessary to any genuinely peaceful Iranian nuclear energy program. Yet he has now acquiesced in Iran’s refusal to close it and it will keep its 500 Fordow centrifuges spinning – centrifuges which can be quicklyrecalibrated for uranium enrichment. 
  • President Obama’s claims that the deal will give us access “to the entire supply chain supports Iran’s nuclear program.” How can that be, when the deal doesn’t address military installations like Parchin?
  • President Obama claims the inspections regime is “robust” and enables “unprecedented verification.” But it does neither, while Iran says inspections are “voluntary” and “temporary.” Moreover, if during 1990–2003, the UN Security Council couldn’t enforce an genuinely intrusive regime of unfettered inspections, anywhere, anytime, without prior notice, backed by a Security Council-sanctioned threatened and sometimes actual use of force in the case of Saddam’s Iraq, what confidence can we have that it will be able to do so with Iran, which is not subject to any such apparatus of inspections and force? 
  • President Obama claims that “If Iran cheats, the world will know.” But this is unlikely. Without unfettered inspections, it can cheat free from any likelihood of discovery, utilizing new, improved centrifuges in secret facilities. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, has observed that Russia’s centrifuge program “went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts” – as did those of Iraq, North Korea, Syria and others. Even when detected, violations take more than the 12-month break-out period to be established and international action orchestrated to deal with them.
  • In any case, knowing is different from acting and what President Obama didn’t say is that the responsibility to declare a violation will rest with the UN  Security Council. As we know from bitter experience dealing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Security Council is hostage to a single veto – for example, that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
  • For the same reason, President Obama claim that sanctions to be “snapped back into place” in the event of Iranian violations is absurd. Suspended sanctions can seldom be restored, especially if Security Council permanent members have other ideas. Even if, with hard work and good luck, certain sanctions are reinstated, it would take many months for this to occur and at least a year for them to take their toll on Tehran – more than the 12 months’ proposed break-out time.
  • Iran’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, whose only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads and would give Iran the capacity to strike the U.S., is no part of the deal.
 
Accordingly, this looks like a replay of the disastrous sequence of negotiations and international concessions with North Korea, which resulted in it becoming a nuclear power. Replaying such  negotiations, which would enable Iran to continue its internal repression and external aggression, its murder of journalists and dissidents, it funding of global terror, its efforts to eliminate Israel, do not represent an effort to stop Iran. They represent an effort to reach an agreement at any cost, including capitulation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, Obama’s opposition to a Senate vote on this agreement proves that it will be a dangerous agreement.
 
Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Creation of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).
 

White House talks Iran deal with Jewish groups


The White House held at least two phone calls with Jewish leaders to explain aspects of the interim sanctions-for-nuclear-rollbacks deal between Iran and major powers.

Among the speakers on the conference calls Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations for North America were Tony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser, and David Cohen, the top Treasury official in charge of implementing sanctions.

The off-the-record calls were a signal of the importance that the administration attaches to keeping pro-Israel groups on board for the six-month interim deal achieved over the weekend in Geneva, however skeptical the groups may be of the deal.

Generally, according to participants, questioners pressed the U.S. officials on the degree to which the deal impacts sanctions and whether the concessions to Iran could be reversed should Iran renege.

The officials said the deal’s sanctions relief affected only the “margins” of the Iranian economy, and that the main sanctions, targeting Iran’s energy and financial sectors, would remain in place.

The White House officials acknowledged differences with Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the deal as “very bad,” but said the endgame was the same: incapacitating Iran’s nuclear capacity, according to call participants.

Another White House call was held Tuesday for leaders of faith groups; Jewish leaders joined the call.

Separately, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a memo on Monday expressed concerns about the interim deal. AIPAC noted that the agreement allows Iran to keep enriching uranium, albeit at low levels, even though U.N. Security Council resolutions have called for a suspension of enrichment pending a final deal, and that it appears to preemptively allow Iran an enrichment capacity as part of a final status deal.

Also problematic, AIPAC said in the memo, is that the deal “includes an option to extend the negotiating window beyond an initial six-month period,” which “creates the possibility that the initial agreement will become a de-facto final agreement.”

The memo called on Congress to pass legislation that would impose penalties should Iran renege on the deal.

Obama takes on critics of Iran nuclear deal


President Barack Obama took on critics of a newly brokered nuclear deal with Iran on Monday by saying tough talk was good for politics but not good for U.S. security.

Top Republicans – as well as U.S. ally Israel – have criticized Obama for agreeing to the deal, which the United States and its partners say will prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Obama has long been criticized for his desire to engage with U.S. foes. As a presidential candidate in 2008, the former Illinois senator took heat for saying he would talk to Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with Washington for decades.

The president seemed to want to make a victory lap with his remarks on Monday, which were mainly focused on immigration reform. He noted he had ended the war in Iraq and would end the war in Afghanistan next year, two things he also pledged to do as a candidate.

If Tehran follows the agreement, Obama said, it would chip away at years of mistrust with the United States.

To his critics, Obama was especially direct.

“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it is not the right thing for our security,” he said.

The White House has declined to identify a date for the next round of talks between Iran and world powers Russia, China, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany. But a spokesman said on Monday that Washington was eager to get started quickly.

Obama is in the middle of a three-day western swing to raise money for the Democratic Party while promoting his policy priorities on the economy.

Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Tim Dobbyn

Rob Eshman: What’s next for Iran?


By Monday morning, the Israeli reaction to the nuclear deal with Iran had changed from “What happened?” to “Now what?”

And that reaction makes a lot more sense.

The interim agreement signed by Iran and the group of negotiating nations known as P5+1 on Saturday night, Nov. 23,  Iran committed to halt uranium enrichment above 5 percent, to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, to suspend its installation of updated centrifuges and its plutonium enrichment, to suspend development of its Arak heavy water reactor and to allow for highly intrusive inspection and monitoring of its nuclear program.

In return, Iran will receive between $6 billion and $7 billion in sanctions relief, while still facing some $30 billion in lost oil revenue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can call the historic deal a “historic mistake,” but the ink is dry, and there’s no going back.  

The dogs bark, as the old Middle East proverb goes, the caravan moves on.

Critics are comparing the interim deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement—but, to be fair, the President’s critics compare everything he does to the 1938 Munich Agreement. 

The reality is far more complicated.  There are serious weaknesses in the deal, as well as strengths.  We can harp on the drawbacks or use the six-month window before the next planned agreement to secure a better deal.

The deal’s weaknesses are legion — the agreement barely shortens the time Iran needs to “break out” and develop a nuclear weapon. Iran can still maintain its 19,000 centrifuges. It still reserves the right to enrich uranium. The deal’s language is vague enough on this point and others for the signatories to become bogged down in interpretations over what the agreement means, rather than focus on its execution.  And relaxing  international sanctions makes it that much more difficult to set them back in place.

Worst of all, the accord puts us in business with a regime that crushes the rights of its people, sows havoc and terror from Gaza to Lebanon to Syria, and that has, of course, lied openly and consistently about the very existence of its nuclear weapons program. 

But there is good news here, too.  The interim agreement allows for the most intrusive inspections ever.    It stalls Iran’s otherwise relentless march toward nuclear capability.  And the sanctions are reversible— easier said than done, yes, but possible — especially if the world sees the alternative is war. 

The accords, by the way, do not limit a military response to Iranian nukes—which still remains the biggest threat hanging over the regime’s head. 

These positive developments are one reason the Israeli reaction was not all negative. The agreement, former Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin said,  “was neither the dream agreement nor the fall of the Third Temple.”

“If this were the final agreement – then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation,” Yadlin told Israeli reporters.

So, to repeat, now what?

Looking forward, not backward, these are the next steps to insure a much safer world.  Among them must be:

1. Parchin:  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes Iran is using the Parchin military complex for secret nuclear weapons development.  Inspectors have to get in there and reveal the truth.

2. Fordo: Inspectors must be allowed access to the Fordo underground enrichment facility whose only possible purpose, experts say, is the development of nuclear weapons capability.

3. Sanctions:  Congress and the international community need to keep the pressure on by preparing a list of crippling sanctions that can be triggered with little more than a Skype call.  Critics say sanctions will be impossible to revive, but the original fear that led to the sanctions was the threat of a U.S. or Israeli military action.  As long as that doesn’t go away, neither will sanctions.

4. Treaties:  The United States can use this opportunity to strengthen its relationships with Israel and other Mideast allies.  That, UCLA Professor and Israel Policy Forum scholar Steven Spiegel wrote, would go a long way toward reassuring our allies and putting Iran on notice that it would face unified opposition to any provocations.

5.  A Final Deal:  This interim deal is for six months.   A final deal should come in month seven.  If the Iranians try to extend, weaken or back out of that – then Obama will know he’s been had.  After all, the outlines of a comprehensive deal aren’t mysterious: An end to Iran’s ability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.   For Yadlin, that means Iran will agree to maintain as few centrifuges as possible, preferably none at all. It will also agree to strict limits on the level of enrichment and the amount of enriched material.

Then, Yadlin said, “if the Iranians decide to violate the agreement, it will take them years rather than months.”

Six months from now is June 2014.  Critics of the interim accord need to stop barking, and start working.

Iran halts nuclear capacity expansion under Rouhani, IAEA report shows


Iran has virtually halted a previously rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment capacity in the past three months, the U.N. nuclear agency said in a report roughly covering the period since moderate Hassan Rouhani became president.

The quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also showed that Iran's stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium — closely watched by the West and Israel -—had risen by about 5 percent to 196 kg since August.

But it remained below the roughly 250 kg needed for a bomb if refined further. Iran denies Western and Israeli accusations that it is seeking nuclear weapons capability, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy.

The quarterly IAEA report – scrutinized by Western governments – was the first that included developments only since Rouhani took office on August 3, prompting a diplomatic opening during which Iran and six world powers have made progress towards ending a standoff over its nuclear activity.

The IAEA said Iran had installed only four first-generation centrifuges – machines used to refine uranium – at its Natanz plant since August, making a total of 15,240. In the previous three-month period, May-August, it installed more than 1,800. Not all of the installed centrifuges are operating.

Rouhani, a pragmatist, succeeded bellicose hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August, promising to try to settle the decade-old nuclear dispute and secure an easing of sanctions that have severely damaged Iran's oil-dependent economy.

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran, powers aim to seal deal on ending nuclear standoff


Iran and six world powers were closing in on a long-elusive deal on Friday aimed at allaying international fears about Tehran's atomic aims and reducing the risk of a new war in the volatile Middle East.

After the first day of a November 7-8 meeting, they said progress had been made towards an agreement under which the Islamic state would curb some of its nuclear activities in exchange for limited relief from sanctions that are damaging its economy.

Negotiators cautioned, however, that work remained to be done in the coming hours in very complex negotiations and that a successful outcome was not guaranteed. Iran rejects Western accusations that it is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said it was too early to say with certainty whether a deal would be possible this week, though he voiced cautious optimism.

“Too soon to say,” Araqchi told reporters after the first day of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. “I'm a bit optimistic.”

“We are still working. We are in a very sensitive phase. We are engaged in real negotiations.”

The fact that an agreement may finally be within reach after a decade of frustrated efforts and mutual hostility between Iran and the West was a sign of a dramatic shift in Tehran's foreign policy since the election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president in June.

The United States and its allies are aiming for a “first step” deal that would stop Iran from further expanding a nuclear program that it has steadily built up in defiance of tightening international pressure.

The Islamic Republic, which holds some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves, wants them to lift increasingly tough punitive measures that have slashed its daily crude sales revenue by 60 percent in the last two years.

Both sides have limited room to maneuver, as hardliners in Tehran and hawks in Washington would likely sharply criticize any agreement they believed went too far in offering concessions to the other side.

U.S. SENATE MAY SEEK MORE SANCTIONS

Lending urgency to the need for a breakthrough soon, a U.S. Senate committee said it would pursue a package of tough new sanctions on Iran after the current Geneva talks end on Friday.

President Barack Obama has been pushing Congress to hold off on more sanctions against Iran, demanded by its arch-enemy Israel, to avoid undermining the diplomacy aimed at defusing fears of an Iranian advance towards nuclear arms capability.

A spokesman for the European Union foreign policy chief – who is presiding over the talks – said on Thursday evening that the powers and Iran were “making progress” towards easing the decade-long standoff.

Michael Mann said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would meet Iran's foreign minister and chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Friday morning “to allow more time to work through some issues”. Diplomats from the six nations would also meet early on Friday to prepare Ashton's talks with Zarif.

Zarif told Reuters earlier in the day: “I'm hopeful that we can move forward. We are making progress, but it's tough.”

In an interview with CNN later, Zarif suggested that a partial suspension of Iran's contested uranium enrichment campaign might be possible – a concession it ruled out before moderate Rouhani's landslide election.

“There won't be a suspension of our enrichment program in its entirety,” Zarif said, rejecting Israel's central demand.

But he said he hoped the sides would agree a joint statement on Friday stipulating a goal to be reached “within a limited period of time, hopefully in less than a year”, and a series of reciprocal actions they would take “to build confidence and address their most immediate concerns.

Iran says it is enriching uranium only to fuel future nuclear power stations and for medical purposes. But its refusal to halt activity which can also have military applications has drawn the increasingly tough sanctions.

The United States said it also held “substantive and serious” bilateral talks with Iran in Geneva – direct dialogue inconceivable before Rouhani took office pledging to build bridges abroad and end a slide towards conflict with the West.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic ties since soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy, and their mutual mistrust and enmity has posed the biggest obstacle to any breakthrough nuclear accord.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that in exchange for “concrete, verifiable measures” of restraint by Iran, the six powers “would consider limited, targeted, and reversible relief that does not affect our core sanctions architecture”.

The broader sanctions regime would stay pending a “final, comprehensive, verifiable” accord, Carney told reporters In Washington. If Iran did not follow through towards this end, modest sanctions relief could be reversed and stiffer penalties imposed.

ISRAEL SEES 'HISTORIC' MISTAKE

The U.S. Senate Banking Committee chairman declared the panel was moving forward on a proposal for new sanctions, a step likely to please Israel which has campaigned against compromise proposals under discussion in Geneva, describing them as potentially “a mistake of historic proportions”.

Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid instructed him to bring the bill closer to a vote by the full Senate by calling for a debate on it.

Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, said after the morning meetings that he hoped a deal could be struck but “the differences are widespread and deep. This is undeniable”.

The Iranian delegation held a series of meetings – one with all three European delegations, then, separately, with the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans.

Araqchi met for an hour with U.S. delegation chief Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, in a meeting that a senior State Department official described as a “substantive and serious conversation”.

The United States and its allies say they are encouraged by Tehran's shift to softer rhetoric since the election of Rouhani. But Western allies say Iran must back its words with action and take concrete steps to scale back its atomic work.

Washington says that would buy time for Iran and the powers to reach a broader diplomatic settlement and avert any war that could cause global economic upheaval.

“It remains our assessment that Iran would need at least one year to acquire one nuclear weapon from the time that Iran decides to pursue one,” Carney said, describing the U.S. view of a potential “breakout move” by Tehran toward building an atomic bomb. “In other words, we would be essentially buying time.”

The exact nature of a possible first step remain unclear. But the six global powers are unlikely to agree on anything less than a suspension of enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, a level that constitutes a technical milestone not far from the threshold for a nuclear warhead.

They want Iran to convert its stockpile of 20 percent uranium to an oxide form suitable for processing into reactor fuel, and take other measures to slow the program.

A U.S. official said Iran at this stage must address important aspects of its nuclear activity, including more intrusive U.N. inspections. Iran's construction of a research reactor near the town of Arak is also a growing concern for the West because of its potential to yield plutonium for bombs.

A senior aide to a U.S. senator briefed by the White House and State Department said Washington would offer to work with Iran in a six-month confidence-building period. During that time Washington would offer Tehran, among other things, relaxed restrictions on Iranian funds held in overseas accounts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he disliked the outlines of an initial deal being hinted at in Geneva since it would allow Iran to keep a nuclear capability.

“Israel totally opposes these proposals,” he said in a speech. “I believe that adopting them would be a mistake of historic proportions. They must be rejected outright.”

Widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, Israel views Iran as a threat to its existence and has warned it could carry out pre-emptive strikes on Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to restrain the program.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Yeganeh Torbati in Geneva, Timothy Gardner in Washington,; Marcus George in Dubai, Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham

Report: Iran weeks away from nuke


Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb in as little as a month, according to a new estimate by a top American think tank.

“Today, Iran could break out most quickly using a three-step process with its installed centrifuges and its low-enriched uranium stockpiles as of August 2013. In this case, Iran could produce one significant quantity in as little as approximately 1.0–1.6 months, if it uses all its near 20 percent low-enriched uranium hexafluoride stockpile,” the Institute for Science and International Security wrote in a report published on its website Thursday.

The new assessment comes as the White House invited Senate staffers to a briefing on negotiations with Iran as part of its efforts to persuade Congress not to go ahead with a bill to stiffen sanctions against Iran.

“Shortening breakout times have implications for any negotiation with Iran,” stated the report. “An essential finding is that they are currently too short and shortening further.”

David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, was quoted by USA Today as saying the estimate means that Iran would have to eliminate more than half of its 19,000 centrifuges to extend the time it would take to build a bomb to six months.

The Obama administration has said Iran is probably a year away from having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.

The White House has said new sanctions legislation should wait while current negotiations — which began last week and are scheduled to resume officially in Geneva next month — are underway.

But Israeli Intelligence and International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz has said that Iran had made no concrete offer to resolve the conflict around its nuclear program during the last round of talks.

He made the statement during talks Wednesday with U.S. officials in Washington over Israeli-American strategic cooperation, Israel’s Army Radio reported Friday. “Teheran made no offer to resolve the crisis,” Steinitz was quoted as saying.

Reports by the Associated Press and other media, however, said Iran submitted a proposal to the six world powers involved in the talks: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

No details of the proposal were made public but Western officials meeting with Iranian negotiators indicated interest, AP reported.

“The talks in Geneva were just feelers,” Steinitz was further quoted as saying.

Hagel, in meeting with Yaalon, pledges to remain firm with Iran


Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met at the Pentagon for the third time in six months.

Hagel told Yaalon during Tuesday’s meeting that while U.S. officials intend to test the prospect for a diplomatic solution with Iran, “we remain clear eyed about the challenges ahead and will not waver from our firm policy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Hagel said according to the Defense Department.

Yaalon warned that the easing of sanctions against Iran, as has been suggested by several Western countries, would lead to a collapse of their effectiveness. He also said it was the credible military threat and existential dilemma facing Syrian President Bashar Assad that caused him to agree to give up chemical weapons, according to Haaretz.

Hagel applauded the announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria has started.

“While much works remains to be done, this recent progress is a step in the right direction to eliminating this threat,” he said.

The leaders also discussed progress on the U.S. effort to increase Israel’s qualitative military edge with advanced capabilities that Hagel announced on his visit to Israel earlier this year.

Hagel and Yaalon said they were pleased with the unprecedented levels of security cooperation between the United States and Israel and pledged to remain in close touch, according to the Defense Department.

Iran further expanding enrichment capacity, Western diplomats say


Iran is believed to be further increasing its uranium enrichment capacity at its Fordow plant buried deep underground, Western diplomats say, in another sign of Tehran defying international demands to curb its disputed nuclear program.

But they said the Islamic Republic did not yet appear to have started up the newly-installed centrifuges to boost production of material which Iran says is for reactor fuel but which can also have military uses if processed more.

“Iran continues to build up enrichment capacity,” one Western official said.

A diplomat accredited to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said: “We think that they have continued installing centrifuges at Fordow. We think that their pace has continued the same as it was, which was pretty rapid.”

If confirmed in the next IAEA report on Iran's atomic activities, expected in mid-November, it would suggest Iran is steadily moving towards completing installment of centrifuges at the Fordow subterranean centrifuge site.

The work may be “near complete,” the Vienna-based diplomat said, in remarks echoed by another envoy.

There was no immediate comment from Iran or the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency based in the Austrian capital.

Fordow – which Tehran only disclosed the existence of in 2009 after learning that Western spy services had detected it – is of particular concern for the United States and its allies as Iran uses it for its higher-grade enrichment.

Iran says it needs uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, compared with the level of up to 5 percent it produces at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, to make fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

STALLED DIPLOMACY

But it also takes Iran a significant technical step closer to the 90 percent concentration needed for bombs, explaining the West's growing concern about the Islamic state's stockpile of the material.

A U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), this month said Iran would currently need at least two to four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb, and additional time to make the device itself.

Last week, Iranian officials said Tehran would negotiate on halting higher-grade enrichment if given fuel for the research reactor, in a possible attempt to show flexibility in stalled nuclear talks with world powers.

The IAEA said in its last report on Iran in late August that the country had doubled the number of centrifuges to 2,140 at Fordow since the previous report in May. More than 600 remained to be installed, the report showed.

Since then, diplomats said they thought Iran had put in place more centrifuges at the site near the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Qom, about 130 km (80 miles) from Tehran and located deep under soil and rock for protection against any attack.

“They continue sort of unabated,” one envoy said.

But they said Iran was still operating the same number of machines as it has been since early this year, nearly 700 centrifuges.

It was not clear when the new equipment would be launched or whether Iran was holding back for technical or political reasons. It is also not known whether the centrifuges which are not yet operating will be used for 5 or 20 percent enrichment, or both, the diplomats say.

Any move by Iran to increase the number of working centrifuges – and the production rate – would be swiftly condemned by its foes in the West and Israel and may further complicate diplomacy aimed at resolving the dispute.

Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful project to generate electricity but its refusal to limit the work and lack of transparency with U.N. inspectors have been met with increasingly tough Western sanctions targeting its oil exports.

European Union governments imposed sanctions on Tuesday against major Iranian state companies in the oil and gas industry, and strengthened restrictions on the central bank, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran.

Editing by Jon Hemming

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