Rohani or no Rohani, we must increase the pressure on Iran


Before the election of President Hassan Rouhani , Iran’s centrifuges were spinning at an unprecedented pace.  After his election, they continue to not only spin, but multiply.  In response, the United States must once again deliver a firm message to Tehran: Halt your illicit nuclear program or face isolation and financial ruin.  Although international sanctions over its illicit nuclear program have sent its economy into a tailspin, the ruling elite — from President Rouhani to Supreme Leader Khameni — remain undeterred

The May report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showcases Iran’s failure to abide by its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran continues to grow its stockpiles of near-20 percent enriched uranium, approaching levels where it could rapidly seek a military breakout, developing a nuclear weapon.  It is now installing advanced centrifuges that could quadruple the pace of nuclear enrichment.  Moreover, a heavy water reactor facility at Arak, which could provide an easier alternative to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon, is nearing completion. And Iran has taken great pains to sanitize the Parchin military site where suspected nuclear testing took place, stonewalling IAEA efforts to gain access along the way.  Action-by-action, Iran is becoming a greater-and-greater threat to the United States and our allies, including Israel. 

[More on Iran: House overwhelmingly votes to add new sanctions]

In Rouhani, we find a man who is intimately familiar with the secret construction of Iran's illicit nuclear facilities in Arak, Natanz and Isfahan, which weren't publicly exposed until 2002.  In 2003, Rouhani took charge as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator — negotiations which gave Iran time to complete its uranium conversion plant and to rapidly increase its number of centrifuges.  During his presidential campaign, Rouhani boasted that during his tenure as negotiator, Iran didn't suspend enrichment — on the contrary, he said, “we completed the program.”

As the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have worked closely with Ranking Member Eliot Engel of New York in securing House of Representatives passage this week of bipartisan legislation that will significantly strengthen the impact of existing sanctions on Iran for its continued resistance.  The objective is to prevent Iran from “completing the program.” 

The Iranian mullahs have consistently demonstrated that they place a higher premium on their nuclear quest than the economic well-being of their people. Enactment of our legislation, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, along with robust implementation and enforcement, is needed to greatly increase the costs to Iran for its ongoing nuclear pursuits.  We have no time to spare.  An Iranian nuclear weapon would trigger a regional arms race in the Middle East and beyond, jeopardizing American security and economic interests. Iran already engages in heavy-handed repression at home and exports terror abroad.  Imagine its behavior if emboldened by nuclear weapons.  It is clear that preventing an Iranian bomb, not containing it, is the only viable option.

Our legislation  is intended to strike a crippling economic blow to the Iranian regime, eliminating sources of foreign funding, restricting access to international commerce, and reducing oil exports by an additional million barrels per day. The bill will apply stiffer penalties to Iranian human rights violators and weapons proliferators; it also targets those who support their wrongdoing.  By bringing the full weight of U.S. pressure to bear, Congress can both deny the regime the ability to continue its destructive polices, and compel the Iranians to abandon their nuclear goals. 

However, the window for a solution is rapidly shrinking.  We cannot afford to let the Iranian regime stall the international community with open-ended negotiations.  Regardless of who is president in Iran, enactment of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is a necessary step in compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and reducing the threat to the U.S. and our allies. 


Royce is the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He represents California’s 39th congressional district, consisting of Orange County, Los Angeles County, and San Bernardino County.

Exiled dissidents claim Iran building new nuclear site


An exiled opposition group said on Thursday it had obtained information about a secret underground nuclear site under construction in Iran, without specifying what kind of atomic activity it believed would be carried out there.

The dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) exposed Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak in 2002. But analysts say it has a chequered track record and a clear political agenda.

Its new allegation drew a cautious international response: the U.N. nuclear watchdog and France – one of six world powers trying to diplomatically resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran – merely said they would look into the matter.

“We are evaluating this information, as we do with all information relating to the Iranian nuclear program,” a French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

In Israel, Iran's arch-adversary, an official said: “I have no knowledge of this other than what was reported.”

In 2010, when the NCRI said it had evidence of another secret nuclear facility, west of the capital Tehran, U.S. officials said they had known about the site for years and had no reason to believe it was nuclear.

The latest accusation comes less than a month after the election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's new president raised hopes for a resolution of the nuclear dispute with the West, and might be timed to discredit such optimism.

The Islamic Republic says its nuclear energy program is entirely peaceful and rejects U.S. and Israeli accusations that it is really seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.

But its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear activity, and its lack of full openness with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, have drawn tough Western sanctions and a threat of pre-emptive military strikes by Israel.

The Paris-based NCRI said members of its affiliated People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) inside the country had “obtained reliable information on a new and completely secret site designated for (Iran's) nuclear project”.

The NCRI, which seeks an end to Islamist theocratic rule in Iran, is the political wing of the PMOI, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

TUNNEL NETWORK

The NCRI said the site was inside a complex of tunnels beneath mountains 10 km (6 miles) east of the town of Damavand, itself about 50 km northeast of Tehran. Construction of the first phase began in 2006 and was recently completed, it said.

The group released satellite photographs of what it said was the site. But they did not appear to constitute hard evidence to support the assertion that it was a planned nuclear facility.

A spokesman for the NCRI said he could not say what sort of nuclear work would be conducted there, but that the companies and people involved showed it was a nuclear site. The group named officials it said were in charge of the project.

“Two of the tunnels are about 550 meters (600 yards) in length, and they have a total of six giant halls,” it said.

International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in Vienna: “The agency will assess the information that has been provided, as we do with any new information we receive.”

A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA told Reuters: “I have heard nothing. My first suspicion is that it is like the 2010 revelation – a tunnel facility the Iranians are keeping quiet, but no known link to the nuclear program.”

There was no immediate comment from Iran, which said in late 2009 that it planned to build 10 more uranium enrichment sites on top of its underground Natanz and Fordow plants, but has provided little additional information.

Proliferation expert Mark Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said the NCRI report “deserves close attention.

“It has been widely assumed that there is likely some Iranian nuclear infrastructure which is secret, undeclared, and which may be underground,” Hibbs said.

Refined uranium can provide fuel for nuclear power plants, which is Iran's stated purpose, but can also be used to make atomic bombs, which the West fears may be the Islamic Republic's ultimate goal.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran moves to speed up nuclear program despite sanctions


Iran is increasing the number of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges installed at its Natanz underground plant, despite tightening international sanctions aimed at stopping Tehran's nuclear progress, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Iran has for years been trying to develop centrifuges more efficient than the erratic 1970s era IR-1 machines it now uses, but introducing new models has been dogged by technical hurdles and difficulty in obtaining key parts abroad.

If launched and operated successfully, the new machines would enable the Islamic state to sharply speed up sensitive atomic activity which it says is for peaceful energy purposes but which the West fears may be aimed at building nuclear bombs.

“It is clear Iran can build them. The question is how many and how good are they,” one Western envoy said.

The planned deployment of next generation centrifuges underlines Iran's refusal to bow to pressure to curb its nuclear program, and may further complicate efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically and avoid a spiral into war.

Iran announced early last month that it would build about 3,000 advanced centrifuges. But experts and diplomats said it was unclear whether it had the capability and materials needed to make so many, and also to run them smoothly.

Although still far from the target number, one diplomatic source estimated that roughly 500-600 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had now been put in place at the Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran.

That compares with 180 two months ago, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's latest report on Iran, issued in February. At the same time, Iran had more than 12,000 old-generation centrifuges installed at Natanz, but not all were enriching.

Two other envoys in Vienna, where the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based, also said the number of installed IR-2m machines was growing but they did not have details. The next IAEA report on Iran is expected in late May.

The diplomats said the new centrifuges were not yet operating, but the increase in installation was still likely to add to Western alarm over Iran's nuclear advances. Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to increase the fissile concentration.

How many Iran can make depends upon whether they have all the parts and materials they need, nuclear expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank said: “It is possible that they have accumulated an inventory of these things.”

NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY BREAKTHROUGH?

Iran says it is enriching uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants, but the material can also provide the core of a nuclear bomb if processed to a high fissile level and the West wants it to suspend the work.

Talks between Iran and world powers this month failed to yield a diplomatic breakthrough, and the United States and Israel, widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, have not ruled out military action to prevent Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.

If hundreds of new centrifuges had now been installed, “it indicates that Iran has made a significant breakthrough both in mastering the technology and in acquiring the raw materials,” said nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

“This development will be of major concern to countries that are worried about Iran's growing ability to quickly produce nuclear weapons.”

Iran had previously been believed to face a shortage of the high strength metals necessary to produce the new centrifuges in large numbers but it might have been able to obtain them on the black market, Fitzpatrick added.

One of the Vienna-based diplomats said the IR-2m machine was designed to reduce sanctions-related problems “in that they replace some hard-to-get materials with what are in theory easier to get or make materials.”

Editing by Jon Hemming

Researchers say Stuxnet was deployed against Iran in 2007


Researchers at Symantec Corp. have uncovered a version of the Stuxnet computer virus that was used to attack Iran's nuclear program in November 2007, two years earlier than previously thought.

Planning for the cyber weapon, the first publicly known example of a virus being used to attack industrial machinery, began at least as early as 2005, according to an 18-page report that the security software company published on Tuesday.

Stuxnet, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was uncovered in 2010 after it was used to attack a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, Iran. That facility has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the United States, Israel and allies, who charge that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Symantec said its researchers had uncovered a piece of code, which they called “Stuxnet 0.5,” among the thousands of versions of the virus that they had recovered from infected machines.

Stuxnet 0.5 was designed to attack the Natanz facility by opening and closing valves that feed uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges, without the knowledge of the operators of the facility, according to Symantec.

The virus was being developed early as 2005, when Iran was still setting up its uranium enrichment facility, said Symantec researcher Liam O'Murchu. That facility went online in 2007.

“It is really mind blowing that they were thinking about creating a project like that in 2005,” O'Murchu told Reuters in ahead of the report's release at the RSA security conference, an event attended by more than 20,000 security professionals, in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Symantec had previously uncovered evidence that planning for Stuxnet began in 2007. The New York Times reported in June 2012 that the impetus for the project dated back to 2006, when U.S. President George W. Bush was looking for options to slow Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Previously discovered versions of Stuxnet are all believed to have been used to sabotage the enrichment process by changing the speeds of those gas-spinning centrifuges without the knowledge of their operators.

Since Stuxnet's discovery in 2010, security researchers have uncovered a handful of other sophisticated pieces of computer code that they believe were developed to engage in espionage and warfare. These include Flame, Duqu and Gauss.

Stuxnet 0.5 was written using much of the same code as Flame, a sophisticated virus that researchers have previously said was primarily used for espionage, Symantec said.

U.N. watchdog: New centrifuges at Natanz advance Iran toward nuclear weapon


Iran has installed centrifuges at its largest nuclear enrichment plant that could be used to produce radioactive material for a nuclear weapon, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency released a report Thursday claiming the Islamic Republic had recently installed 180 advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its plant in Natanz.

According to the report circulated among its 35-nation members, the centrifuges can produce between three to five times more material than the ones now being used there.

Israel said the report was evidence that Iran is continuing to “advance swiftly towards the red line that the prime minister drew in his speech at the United Nations.” The British Foreign Office said the IAEA's findings were cause for “serious concern.”

Tehran claims its nuclear program is needed for peaceful purposes.

Iran reportedly to upgrade nuclear enrichment centrifuges


Iran will upgrade the nuclear enrichment equipment at its Natanz nuclear plant.

Iran informed the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it will use a new model of centrifuge in a unit at its underground facility located southeast of Tehran, according to the New York Times.

The upgraded equipment will allow Iran to refine uranium faster. Natanz currently enriches uranium to 4 percent purity. Another plant, Fordow, takes the uranium from Natanz and enriches it to 20 percent purity, which can be used to fuel a research reactor in Tehran.

One unit at a nuclear plant can house up to 3,000 centrifuges.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful, domestic uses, while Western countries believe it is working to create a nuclear weapon.