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.”

As Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability, a red line is passed

The debate about red lines on Iran appears to be over.

With its massive increase of operative centrifuges at a secured uranium enrichment site, Iran appears to have moved beyond the question of whether capability to build a nuclear weapon or actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon is the appropriate red line.

Iran already has achieved nuclear weapons capability, according to Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Adler studied the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran, which was leaked last week. It said that Iran soon could double the number of operating centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear site from 700 to 1,400. In all, the site has nearly 2,800 centrifuges in place, according to the report.

Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, is built into a mountainside. Israeli and Western officials say the site has been fortified against attack.

“As always with Iran, as time goes on they increase the facts on the ground,” Adler said. “Let's see what they do with the facts on the ground. What they do with their capability will determine whether they intend to be more threatening or reassuring.

“They’ve built up capacity — let's see whether they use it or not,” Adler said.

The notion of  what constitutes capability to produce a nuclear weapon long has been controversial. Groups that oppose military engagement with Iran charge that the term itself is unclear and the aim of those promoting it as a red line was to encourage a military strike. Others argued that with evidence of uranium enriched to “medium” levels — just a step or two short of weapons grade — Iran already had capability.

A Gallup poll published Monday found that Americans cited keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as among the top three priorities of President Obama's second term, with 79 percent of respondents ranking the issue as “extremely” or “very” important.

For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had led calls to set nuclear capability as the red line. Both parties in Congress backed that language, inserting it into a number of laws. The Obama administration resisted, instead seeking through diplomatic and economic pressures to persuade Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu appeared to back down in September following months of pressure from Obama administration officials seeking to head off an Israeli strike on Iran. In a U.N. speech, Netanyahu set the Israeli red line at the point where Iran has made the decision to manufacture a bomb – essentially the position Obama had staked out.

In that speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu said that point might come as soon as spring, and Obama appears to agree. Last week, Obama said the window for diplomacy is several months.

“I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran, and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved,” the U.S. leader said. “I can't promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through, but that would be very much the preferable option.”

Western diplomats have told JTA that such a dynamic likely would culminate in one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran. The New York Times last week reported that the Obama administration was seeking such talks, though the White House denied it.

Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter during the Clinton administration who now directs the National Security Network, a liberal/realist foreign policy think tank, noted that administration officials did not reject outright the prospect of one-on-one talks.

“There’s this interesting dance about one-on-one talks,” she said. “It's clear both sides are looking forward to having one on one.”

Obama, after his decisive election victory this month, has the mandate for such talks, Hurlburt said, partly because his challenger, Mitt Romney, toward the end of the campaign aligned his Iran policy with Obama’s, emphasizing diplomacy as the best way forward.

“There are a number of areas where Romney adopted the president’s foreign policy, and Iran was one,” she said, adding that polling shows the public prefers a diplomatic option.

Polling also shows that the public sees Iran as a priority, which could spur forward Obama administration urgency toward securing a deal.

Stephen Rademaker, a nuclear arms negotiator for the George W. Bush administration, said Obama deserves breathing space to explore such a deal – but that negotiations should be subject to close scrutiny.

“I would never fault the U.S. government for exploring whether Iran is prepared to reach a diplomatic settlement to suspend the enrichment program. Now is a good a time as any to test them on that,” said Rademaker, now a principal at a lobbying outfit, the Podesta Group. “My larger concern about negotiations with Iran is that the Iranians may say yes to what we see is a good deal, but the reverse is also true.”

One positive outcome, Rademaker said, would be a verifiable reduction in readily available enriched uranium, either through export or dedicated use in non-weapon capacities.

Michael Makovksy, a Bush administration Pentagon official who focused on Iraq and now directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s foreign policy projects, said pressure should increase at least until a deal is achieved.

“You could increase those chances” of a deal “if you have much tougher sanctions, a much tougher embargo on Iran, but it's unclear whether other countries will go along with that,” Makovsky said.

Another option is to ratchet up pressure by sharing with Israel advanced weapons, including the latest generation of bunker-busting bombs, and increasing the U.S. profile in the Persian Gulf, he said.

“The element we need to be focusing on is boosting the credibility of the U.S. military option and of Israel's,” Makovsky said.

U.S. should heed call for a clear Iranian red line

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a persuasive case at the United Nations General Assembly Thursday for a clear red line to ward off Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Time is running out and the United States should listen to the Israeli leader and draw a clear line for Tehran.
Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly showed he was willing to draw the line on Iran’s enriched uranium production and put the focus on President Obama’s refusal to do that so far.
“At stake is the future of the world,” Netanyahu said. “Nothing could imperil our common future more than arming Iran with nuclear weapons.
“Just imagine their long-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, their terror networks armed with atomic bombs. Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America?  Who would be safe any where?”
The Prime Minister said that Iran had completed the first phase of its uranium enrichment program, which took several years, but that the second phase would be completed by spring or summer of next year. The third and final phase, he said, would take only months or even weeks, giving Iran enough highly enriched uranium for its first nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu said the world had to draw a line and take military action if Iran reached the end of the second phase. 
“The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target,” he said.  “I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.”
So without saying so explicitly, Israel’s prime minister implied that Israel would not act unilaterally with a military response until Iran reached the red line he outlined and would give diplomacy and sanctions until next year, after U.S. elections, to force Iran to change course.
In his own address to the U.N. Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear program.
“Make no mistake, a nuclear armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” the President said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
But the President did not spell out what doing “what we must” entails or what point in the Iranian nuclear program the United States might take military action to stop it. 
The President continues to put too much reliance on diplomacy and sanctions. Congress has insisted on increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, often in the face of stiff opposition from the Obama Administration. 
Even the strongest sanctions will not make a difference if the Administration doesn’t strictly and universally enforce them.  As has been widely reported, the Administration has routinely exempted allies and important trading partners from compliance. And as Andrew Davenport and Ilan Berman said in their Washington Post column Thursday, the current U.S. sanctions policy is “simultaneously extensive and flimsy.”  In only a few cases have violators faced sanctions.
Despite their weaknesses, the current U.S. and European Union sanctions have impacted the Iranian economy. Iran’s oil exports have declined by more than 50 percent in the past year and bread, meat and electricity prices have soared. But the Mullahs in Tehran are willing to sacrifice the well-being of Iranians while putting more and more of their nation’s resources into their nuclear program.
After declining the opportunity to meet with Netanyahu at the U.N., the President and the Prime Minister spoke by telephone Friday. While a White House statement said both men agreed on the goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, no mention was made of any progress toward resolving the disagreement between Israel and the U.S. on issuing an ultimatum to Tehran.
It’s clear the current U.S. position has not slowed Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons capability. In fact, publicly available reports by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) document that Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment program. The IAEA reports that Iran doubled the number of centrifuges at Qom used for that effort in just this year.
It’s also clear that Iran is trying to cut the time to reach what Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barark calls the “zone of immunity,” where Tehran is close enough to having a weapon that it becomes immune from attack for fear of nuclear retaliation.
Diplomacy and sanctions should always be the first choice. But all of the diplomacy, all of the sanctions against Iran so far, have not slowed Iran’s program. The lack of a credible red line unfortunately has given Iran the time it needs to reach its nuclear goals. And it has been viewed by the Iranians as a sign of U.S. weakness.
The United States cannot allow Iran to threaten the world. Iran cannot reach a “zone of immunity.”  There has to be a deadline. The U.S. should join Israel in declaring a clear, unambiguous red line for Iran that must not be crossed. Such clarity is the best way to avoid war.
Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly represents Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in Congress and is vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. He served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2003-2011.

Clinton slams Iran on enrichment announcement

The Obama administration condemned Iran’s declared intention to launch uranium enrichment at a site it had kept secret until recently.

“This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime’s blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country’s growing isolation is self-inflicted,” said a statement Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Iran only declared the Qom facility to the IAEA after it was discovered by the international community following three years of covert construction.”

Obama revealed the existence of the facility near Qom, a holy city, in late 2009, forcing Iran to convey some of its particulars to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

Iran this week said it would activate centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20 percent, for medical research—all short of the 90 percent needed to manufacture nuclear bombs.

“We call upon Iran to immediately cease uranium enrichment and to comply with its international nuclear obligations,” Clinton said in her statement.

The Obama administration in recent weeks launched an international initiative to further isolate Iran as a means of pressuring it to make transparent its suspected nuclear program.