With eye on Iran, U.S. upgrades bunker buster


U.S. officials reportedly told Israel that the United States has improved weapons capable of destroying Iran's underground nuclear site in Fordow.

The Wall Street Journal, quoting unnamed American officials, reported Thursday that the United States had assured Israel that advanced features added to its bunker buster bombs vastly improved its ability to destroy underground facilities.

The Journal reported that the United States hopes the improved Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, will serve to convince Israel to hold off on unilaterally attacking Iran and give Washington more time to address Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program diplomatically.

The MOP bomb weighs 30,000 pounds and has been improved with “adjusted fuses to maximize its burrowing power, upgraded guidance systems to improve its precision and high-tech equipment intended to allow it to evade Iranian air defenses in order to reach and destroy the Fordow nuclear enrichment complex,” according to the Journal.

White House: Fordow explosion reports ‘not credible’


The White House said reports of an explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility were not credible.

“We don't believe those are credible reports,” spokesman Jay Carney said Monday afternoon. “We have no information that would confirm them and do not believe that those reports or that report is credible.”

Reports in some Western media over the weekend said a major explosion had taken place at Fordow, a reinforced uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom. Iranian officials denied the reports as propaganda.

Carney also said that Iran was resisting efforts to convene talks with major powers over making its nuclear program more transparent. Western intelligence agencies believe the program is aimed at obtaining a weapon.

He said the major powers had offered to meet Iranian officials in Istanbul this week, but Iran rebuffed the effort and negotiations were under way for a February meeting.

“But let’s be clear, negotiating over negotiations is not a tactic that produces positive results for Iran,” he said. “It only results in more isolation and more pressure.”

Iran ready to double nuclear work in bunker, IAEA says


Iran is set to sharply expand its uranium enrichment in an underground site after installing all the centrifuges it was built for, a U.N. nuclear report showed on Friday, a move that could increase Western alarm about Tehran's nuclear course.

The latest quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran came 10 days after the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama, which raised hopes for a revival of nuclear diplomacy with Iran following speculation that Israel might bomb the nuclear facilities of its arch-enemy soon.

The Islamic state has put in place the nearly 2,800 centrifuges that the Fordow enrichment site, buried deep inside a mountain, was designed for, and is poised to double the number of them operating to almost 1,400, according to the confidential IAEA report obtained by Reuters.

“They can be started any day. They are ready,” a senior diplomat familiar with the IAEA's investigation said.

If Iran chose to dedicate the new machines to produce higher-grade uranium, it could significantly shorten the time it would require for any bid to build an atomic bomb. Iran says it needs to refine uranium to make reactor fuel.

Tehran has produced about 512 pounds of higher-grade enriched uranium since 2010, an increase of 43 kg since August this year, according to the report issued in Vienna.

That could be sufficient for one bomb, security experts say. But the Iranians have fed about 96 kg of the uranium refined to 20 percent of fissile concentration for conversion into fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran, the report said.

Such conversions make it harder for the material to be processed into 90 percent, or bomb-grade, enriched uranium and could be a step by Tehran meant in part to counter Western suspicions of a covert atomic bomb programme.

But the stockpile of 20 percent uranium gas has still grown by nearly 50 percent to 145 kg in the last three months, approaching the amount required for a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA report also said that “extensive activities” at the Parchin military compound – an allusion to suspected Iranian attempts to remove evidence – would seriously undermine an agency investigation into indications that research relevant to developing a nuclear explosive were conducted there.

It is “necessary to have access to this location without further delay”, the report said.

“WINDOW OF TIME” FOR DIPLOMACY?

Tehran denies U.S. and Israeli allegations that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, saying its programme is entirely for peaceful energy. But U.N. inspectors suspect past, and possibly ongoing, military nuclear activity.

Obama this week said he believed there was still a “window of time” to find a peaceful resolution to the long standoff with Iran. But the IAEA report underlined the tough task facing Western powers pressing it to curb its nuclear programme.

Fordow particularly worries the West as it is where Iran refines uranium to 20 percent purity, compared with the 3.5 percent level usually needed for nuclear energy plants.

Iran says it must do this to make fuel for the Tehran research reactor, but it also represents a major technical leap towards the threshold suitable for nuclear weapons.

The fact that Fordow is buried deep underground makes it less vulnerable to any air strikes, which Israel has threatened if diplomacy fails to stop Iran acquiring the means to produce atomic bombs.

The conversion of 20 percent uranium into fuel is reversible as long as it has not been introduced into a working reactor, but it would take a few months to turn it back into gas form.

This may explain why Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, recently signalled that an attack on its arch-enemy's nuclear sites was not imminent, after months of talk that it might be on the cards soon.

The question of when and how quickly Iran might be able to assemble an atom bomb if it chose to do so is hotly debated because it could influence any decision by Israel to take military action – a step many fear would blow up into a broader Middle East war that would batter a stumbling global economy.

The IAEA report said Iran had removed fuel from the core of its first nuclear power plant, near the town of Bushehr on the country's Gulf coast, indicating a possible new problem in operating the long-delayed Russian-built facility.

The diplomat said the plant had been shut down as a result, but gave no further details.

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

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.

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