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

Netanyahu urges Kerry to reject rumored deal with Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the United States to reject a deal that reportedly would ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for limiting uranium enrichment to 3.5 percent purity.

Netanyahu said Israel “utterly rejects” the deal, details of which were reported Thursday in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

“Israel is not obliged by this agreement and will do everything it needs to defend itself, to defend the security of its people,” he said prior to a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry cut short a Middle East trip to travel to Geneva Friday in a bid to “narrow the difference in negotiations” between the major powers and Iran.

According to the Telegraph, the deal under discussion would require Iran to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and turn its existing stockpile into harmless oxide. But it would be permitted to enrich to the 3.5 percent purity needed for nuclear energy.

In exchange, Iran would reportedly receive limited sanctions relief.

Netanyahu said Friday that he told Kerry during a meeting in Israel that “no deal is better than a bad one” ahead of Kerry’s departure for Geneva, where the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany are negotiating with Iran.

“The deal being discussed in Geneva is a bad one, a very bad deal,” Netanyahu said. Under the deal

“Iran is not required to dismantle even a single centrifuge, yet the international community is easing sanctions for the first time in many years. Iran is getting everything it wanted at this stage but is giving nothing in return at a time when it is under heavy pressure,” Netanyahu added.

“I call on Secretary Kerry not to rush and sign but wait and re-evaluate to get a better deal,” Netanyahu said.

An unnamed U.S. Senate aide, citing briefings from the White House, the State Department and sources in Geneva, told the Telegraph that in addition to the 3.5-percent limit, Iran would agree to limit the number of centrifuges being used for this purpose.

Iran would also agree not to use its more advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which can enrich uranium between three and five times faster than an older model, but would be under no requirement to remove or disable any other centrifuges.

Additionally, under the deal Iran would agree to a six-month freeze in some activities at its reactor at Arak.

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.

Steinitz to U.S.: Israel’s ‘minimum’ is no enrichment


Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told his American counterparts in the Israel-U.S. strategic dialogue that Israel’s “minimum” in any deal with Iran was no uranium enrichment.

Steinitz described his meeting Wednesday with a U.S. team led by William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, as long and productive. Such meetings take place about twice a year.

Steinitz, speaking Thursday to Israeli journalists, said his message to the Americans was that the Iranians must be stripped of any enrichment capacity, describing that as “the minimal agreement for Israel to live with it in peace.”

Israeli officials have not said what the country would do should the United States and Iran strike a deal short of Israel’s demands, but Netanyahu has not ruled out a military strike to keep Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity.

The United States led major powers in renewing talks with Iran this month aimed at making more transparent that country’s nuclear program.

The talks were launched after the election this summer of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who campaigned on outreach to the West, partly as a means of relieving crippling sanctions.

Rouhani says he is ready to make more transparent a nuclear program he insists is for peaceful purposes, but he has ruled out any permanent end to enrichment.

The Obama administration has not publicly said whether it would accept continued enrichment, but reports have said that Western diplomats may accept uranium enrichment at 3.5-5 percent, well short of the 90 percent needed for weaponization.

Steinitz said that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is such that even at 3.5 percent enrichment, it could break out to weaponization within months and would be able in its first year to manufacture 5-7 bombs.

Steinitz, who also met with lawmakers in Congress and Vice President Joe Biden during his stay, said he backed intensifying sanctions as a means of increasing leverage. Some leading congressional lawmakers back such an intensification; the Obama administration says that such a step now could scuttle the renewed talks.

The next round of talks between the major powers and Iran is set for next month.

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.

Iran claims new uranium deposits


Iran claimed to have uncovered new deposits of uranium ahead of talks with world powers on its nuclear capacity.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, made the announcement at an annual conference on the nuclear industry, Reuters reported Sunday, quoting Iranian media.

Abbasi-Davani told the conference that Iran will put the raw uranium “to use in the near future.”

Iran was believed to be running out of sources for raw uranium because of tough sanctions aimed at forcing the country to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Representatives of Iran are scheduled to meet this week in Kazakhstan with representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany to advance talks that would ease the sanctions in exchange for greater transparency. Iran denies Western claims that it has a nuclear weapons program and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

The report by Reuters citing Irna, the Iranian news agency, also said that Iran had identified 16 new sites for nuclear power plants.

Separately, The Associated Press reported over the weekend that Iran claimed to have forced down an unmanned drone in its airspace.

Iran has made several such claims; they have not been verified.

The claims are significant because the ability to guide down the aircraft — as opposed to shooting them down — would suggest that Iran has the capability to breach the codes of the Western militaries that have launched the drones.

UN inspectors see new centrifuges at Iran nuclear site, diplomat says


U.N. nuclear inspectors have seen a small number of advanced centrifuges at an uranium enrichment plant where Iran has said it will install and operate them, a diplomatic source said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Iran's atomic energy chief said it had started installing a new generation of machines for refining uranium at the Natanz plant, an announcement likely to annoy the West and complicate efforts to resolve a dispute over its nuclear work.

The diplomatic source, who declined to be identified, suggested the centrifuges were positioned for installation at the Natanz facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regularly visits Iranian nuclear sites, including Natanz.

Iran had already told the IAEA that it planned to introduce new, so-called IR2-m centrifuges to its main enrichment plant near the central town of Natanz – a step that could significantly speed up its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to develop a nuclear weapon.

Enriched uranium can fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated aim, or, if refined to a high degree, provide material for bombs, which the West suspects is Tehran's real purpose – something Iran strenuously denies.

If deployed successfully, new-generation centrifuges could refine uranium several times faster than the model Iran now has.

It was not clear how many of the new centrifuges Iran aimed to install at Natanz, which is designed for tens of thousands; an IAEA note to member states on Jan. 31 implied that it could be up to 3,000 or so.

Iran's atomic energy chief, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, said on Wednesday the new machines were specifically geared for lower-grade enrichment of uranium to below 5 percent purity.

Iran has been refining some uranium up to a concentration of 20 percent fissile material, only a short technical step from weapons grade of 90 percent.

It is this stockpile that has prompted Israel and the United States to warn that they will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran being able to build a nuclear warhead.

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Report: Iran converting enriched uranium to reactor fuel


Iran announced that is converting some of its enriched uranium to reactor fuel.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that some uranium enriched to 20 percent purity was being converted into fuel for a research nuclear reactor in Tehran, the New York Times reported, citing the Iranian state news agency IRNA.

Details of the work were sent to the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International atomic Energy Agency, according to the spokesperson.

The conversion of the uranium means some depletion of Iran's stockpile of uranium that is approaching an enrichment suitable for a nuclear weapon.

IAEA deputy director Herman Nackaerts is scheduled to meet in Tehran with Iranian officials on Wednesday.  Iranian negotiators will meet later this month in Kazhakhstan with representatives of the world powers for multilateral talks over making Iran's nuclear program more transparent.

The Iranian spokesman also said Tuesday that the IAEA's request to inspect the Parchin military base could be honored if the organization agrees to acknowledge the Islamic Republic's right to have a nuclear program.

The IAEA has been trying to see Parchin for the last year. Satellite photos of the site near Tehran indicate that it has been used for nuclear weapons experiments. Other satellite photos show that it has since been sterilized, making it difficult to detect the kind of nuclear experiments that took place.

Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for domestic, peaceful purposes. Western powers believe Iran is preparing to build nuclear weapons.

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.

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.

Officials worry over uranium stockpile in Syria


Officials are concerned that a stockpile of unenriched uranium in Syria, enough to make five nuclear bombs, could fall into the hands of Iran.

The 50 metric tons of unenriched uranium are believed to be left over from the Syrian nuclear program, according to the Financial Times. 

A nearly completed nuclear reactor located at Al-Kibar, in eastern Syria, reportedly was destroyed by Israeli jets in September 2007. It is unknown where the uranium that was slated for the reactor is being stored.

Some nuclear officials fear that Iran, which is closely allied to Syria and needs uranium for its nuclear program, might be trying to get hold of the uranium, according to the Financial Times.

Iran talks to resume soon, reports say


Iran and the six major world powers it deals with on nuclear issues are preparing for talks, according to multiple reports.

Meetings between Iran and representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany could come as soon as the week before the New Year, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.

The six countries will offer Iran assistance on its civilian nuclear program and a lifting on a ban of the sale of airplane parts in exchange for verifiable limits on activities that could relate to a suspected nuclear weapons program, the newspaper said.

Iran, too, appears ready for new talks.

“The two sides (Iran and the world powers) have reached a conclusion that they must exit the current stalemate,” Irani Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as telling the independent Iranian Students' News Agency, according to a report Monday by Reuters.

Israel wants an end to all uranium enrichment, while the major powers have suggested that they will settle for enrichment for civilian purposes.

The Obama administration this year persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to step back from threats of military action at least until the spring to see if tightening economic sanctions and diplomatic outreach could achieve a breakthrough.

Both governments remain in close contact on the issue. Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for military affairs, met with Israeli officials from Dec. 12 to 14, just as news of renewed talks with Iran was leaked.

On Dec. 13, the Obama administration announced new sanctions targeting individuals and entities affiliated with Iranian nuclear research and development.

Congress is considering new sanctions, over Obama administration objections, that would target entities that circumvent banking sanctions by trading oil for bullion with Iran.

Iranian nuclear challenge must be tackled in 2013, Netanyahu says


Iran is getting ever closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb and the problem will have to be confronted in 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

Israeli officials would like the United States to take the lead in a military assault on Iran's nuclear sites, but say in private they would go it alone if necessary, describing a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Speaking to foreign journalists, Netanyahu said Israel was sticking to the red line he laid down in September, when he told the United Nations Iran should not have enough enriched uranium to make even a single warhead.

“I made clear that once Iran crosses that enrichment threshold, the chances of us effectively stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program would be reduced dramatically,” he said.

“Iran is two and a half months closer to crossing this line and there is no doubt that this will be a major challenge that will have to be addressed next year.”

Iran denies accusations by Israel, the United States and many Western governments that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, saying its ambitious nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Israeli experts have said Iran could have enriched enough uranium to produce just one bomb by the spring or summer of 2013. In an effort to deter Tehran, Western powers have imposed increasingly tough economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

“The sanctions on Iran are hurting the Iranian economy. There is no question about that. But we have not seen any evidence that sanctions have stalled Iran's nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said.

“Israel is more capable of addressing this challenge than it was when I took office four years ago,” said Netanyahu, who looks on course to win re-election in a January 22 national ballot.

Israel has one of the largest air forces in the world and is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

Iran's nuclear facilities are well protected and dotted around the vast country, posing a massive challenge to the Israeli military which does not have the reach of the United States or as powerful conventional munitions.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Roche

Iran nukes chief says enrichment to continue, leaked diagram shows mega-bomb


The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said his country would continue to enrich uranium “with intensity.”

Wednesday's remarks by Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani came a day after the release of a diagram showing Iran was working on a mega-nuclear weapon.

The diagram, which was published by The Associated Press, shows that Iranian scientists ran computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would be more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima during World War II.

According to AP, the diagram was leaked to the news agency by another country “critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon.”

The graph reportedly had been cited last year in an International Atomic Energy Agency report. The models shown on the diagram could have been created as early as 2008 or 2009, the AP reported. Some diplomats speculate the diagrams could have come from the United States or Israel, the countries that have provided most of the intelligence about Iran's nuclear program to the IAEA.

Abbasi-Davani said, according to the website of the Iranian state television IRIB, “Despite the sanctions, most likely this year we will have a substantial growth in centrifuge machines and we will continue (uranium) enrichment with intensity.”

U.S. to honor Israel’s Barak, outgoing architect of Iran policy


Outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will receive the highest award he could be given by a U.S. secretary of defense when he visits the Pentagon on Thursday, three days after announcing his exit from political life next year.

The 70-year-old Barak, a leading strategist in confronting Iran over its nuclear program who has also served as Israel's prime minister and armed forces chief, has been a regular visitor to the Pentagon in recent years as tensions with Tehran simmer.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has known the Israeli leader since President Bill Clinton's administration, when Panetta was chief of staff and when Barak served in roles including foreign minister. Barak and Panetta speak regularly, with three conversations alone during the crisis in Gaza this month.

“He's been an important partner of the U.S. for a long time,” one U.S. defense official told Reuters, adding he will receive the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

Should Barak's resignation prove permanent, his successor could come from the ranks of right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been seen at odds with Washington over the best way to handle Iran.

Ex-Israeli general Moshe Yaalon, who has talked tough on Iran but is more circumspect among Netanyahu's advisors, is a possible candidate to succeed the more moderate Barak. He is the minister of strategic affairs and is a former chief of staff of the Israeli defense forces.

There has been speculation that Barak might even be replaced by the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the Likud's more hawkish coalition partner.

“The fact is that none of us know,” said Anthony Cordesman, at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Pentagon announced that Panetta and Barak will address a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (1730 GMT).

Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Stacey Joyce

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.

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.

Barak: Iran has delayed building a nuclear bomb


Iran has pulled back from the brink of achieving a nuclear weapon, opting to use over a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a British newspaper.

Iran's decision to convert that uranium into fuel rods for a civilian research reactor avoided a crisis this summer, Barak said in an interview published Tuesday in the Daily Telegraph.

Iran delayed its ability to assemble a nuclear bomb by eight to 10 months, according to Barak, who said that he does not believe sanctions and diplomacy will succeed and that Israel and its allies will  have to decide sometime in 2013 whether to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

He added that Israel reserves the right to act unilaterally to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.

Barak told the newspaper that Iran is progressing steadily towards its goal of a nuclear weapon. His concern, he said, is that Tehran will fortify its nuclear plants to the point where Israel's air force will not be able to disable them by itself. 

“When it comes to the very core of our security interests and, in a way, the future of Israel, we cannot delegate the responsibility for making decisions even into the hands of our most trusted and trustworthy ally,” Barak told the newspaper. “It doesn’t mean that we would be sorry if the Iranians come to the conclusion on their own. The opposite is true. But, if no one acts, we will have to contemplate action.”

Netanyahu says strike on Iran would be good for Arabs


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought on Tuesday to convince Arab states that an Israeli military strike on Iran would benefit them, removing a potential threat and easing tensions across the Middle East.

Netanyahu has made a number of veiled threats to attack Iran's nuclear program and has appealed to the United States and the United Nations to set a limit for Tehran on its further development.

In an interview published on Tuesday with French magazine Paris Match, Netanyahu said such a strike would not worsen regional tensions, as many critics have warned.

“Five minutes after, contrary to what the skeptics say, I think a feeling of relief would spread across the region,” he said.

“Iran is not popular in the Arab world, far from it, and some governments in the region, as well as their citizens, have understood that a nuclear armed Iran would be dangerous for them, not just for Israel,” he said.

Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, believes Tehran intends to build atomic weapons and has consistently urged the West to increase up sanctions. Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful energy purposes only.

The United States and other Western countries have rejected Netanyahu's demand to set a limit for Iran and have urged him to refrain from military action to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance to work.

Netanyahu, who is running for re-election in January at the head of the right-wing Likud party, told the United Nations last month that a strike could wait until spring or summer when he said Tehran might be on the brink of building an atomic bomb.

During his two-day visit to France, Netanyahu will travel to the southern city of Toulouse with President Francois Hollande for a ceremony of remembrance for the victims of an Islamist gunman who killed seven people there in March, including three Jewish children.

Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Angus MacSwan

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Report: Iran nearly done installing centrifuges at nuclear plant


Iran appears to be nearly finished installing centrifuges at one of its underground plants, drawing it still closer to making weapons-grade uranium.

Reuters quoted Western diplomats who said they have heard indications that Iran finished putting in place the remaining uranium centrifuges but had not starting running them yet.

According to the unnamed diplomats, while there may be more centrifuges located deep inside a mountain at its Fordow plant, the preparations needed to operate them have not been completed.

The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in its last report, in August, said that Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges at Fordow to 2,140.

U.S. says it’s willing to meet with Iran on nukes but no talks set


[UPDATE: 6:31 pm]

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the United States and Iran have agreed in principle to hold one-on-one negotiations on Iran's nuclear program but the White House quickly denied that any talks had been set.

The Times, quoting unnamed Obama administration officials, said earlier on Saturday the two sides had agreed to bilateral negotiations after secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials. The newspaper later said the agreement was “in principle.”

The White House quickly denied the report, which came two days before President Barack Obama is due to face Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a debate focused on foreign policy.

“It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

“We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

The P5+1 group is composed of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia – plus Germany.

Iran had insisted the talks with Washington not begin until after the November 6 U.S. election determines whether Obama will serve a second term or whether Romney will succeed him, the Times said.

The New York Times report looked likely to fan campaign debate over foreign policy, where Romney has been hitting Obama with charges that he has been an ineffective leader who has left the country vulnerable.

The Obama administration counters that it has pressed hard on all major security challenges while at the same time winding down unpopular and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But tensions with Iran continue to simmer, leading many analysts to say it is the largest security issue facing the United States and a potential flashpoint for broader conflict in the Middle East.

TWO TRACKS, FEW RESULTS

The United States has been working with the P5+1 to pressure Iran on its nuclear program but with few results. The United States and other Western powers have charged that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

Israel has said it would use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power but has in the past had differences with Washington over when Tehran would actually cross the “red line” to nuclear capability.

The Times story quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying the United States had reached the agreement for bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials who report to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the White House said the Obama administration was intent on its current “two-track” course, which involves both diplomatic engagement and a tightening network of international sanctions to pressure Iran.

“The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that,” Vietor's statement said.

“It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.”

“NON-STARTERS” THUS FAR

The P5+1 has held a series of inconclusive meetings with Iranian officials in the past year. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tehran's proposals to date had been “non-starters.”

While Western officials say there is still time to negotiate, they also have been ratcheting up sanctions, which are contributing to mounting economic problems in Iran.

The United States has expressed a willingness for talks narrowly focused on specific issues, preferably on the sidelines of multilateral negotiations. But Iran has been pressing for broader direct negotiations that include other regional issues including Syria and Bahrain – something the United States opposes.

“We've always seen the nuclear issue as independent,” the administration official told the Times, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “We're not going to allow them to draw a linkage.”

The Times included the White House denial in a subsequent version of its story and said reports of the agreement had circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.

Even if the two sides sit down, American officials worry Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete key elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites, the Times said.

Any talks would open a diplomatic window for the United States and Israel that could provide strategic cover should they see the need for military action down the road.

“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven't had such discussions,” R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Tehran as undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, told the Times.

<i>Additional reporting by Todd Eastham; Editing By Paul Simao and Bill Trott</i>

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

Romney says he and Netanyahu have same ‘test’ for Iran


Mitt Romney has said that he and Benjamin Netanyahu would employ the same “test” for Iran's nuclear program, but that a strike was “a long way” off.

Speaking to CNN on Oct. 9, the US Republican presidential candidate said: “My own test is that Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. I think that's the same test that [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu would also apply.”

Netanyahu is insisting the “international community” — a term which Israeli politicians often use in referring to the U.S. — draw a clear “red line” in Iran's path to obtaining nuclear weapons. Crossing the line would mean military intervention.

Netanyahu has warned that vows to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons — such as the ones made by the Obama Administration — were not enough, and that the threshold to a strike on Iran should be set at an earlier point.  

On CNN, Romney added that there should be “no daylight between the United States and Israel,” returning to a theme he has brought out frequently in recent campaign events. “We share values, and we're both absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Romney also said that “we have a long way to go before military action may be necessary. And hopefully it's never necessary. Hopefully, through extremely tight sanctions, as well as diplomatic action, we can prevent Iran from taking a course which would lead to them crossing that line.”

“There's great hope and real prospects for dissuading Iran from taking a path that leads into a nuclear setting,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

If Israel were to launch a military strike, he said, “the actions of Israel would not come as a surprise to me.”

A report in Foreign Policy magazine on Oct. 8 said that Israel and the US are considering a joint surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Report: U.S. rejected Iranian plan on nukes


Iranian officials reportedly offered a nine-step plan to defuse the nuclear crisis with the West that was rejected by U.S. officials.

The Iranian offer was to gradually suspend the production of uranium that can quickly be converted to military use. But American officials dismissed the proposal as unworkable because it requires too many concessions by the West, including the dismantling of all sanctions before uranian enrichment would cease, The New York Times reported. The plan calls for a step-by-step lifting of sanctions while the Iranians end work at one of two sites producing highly enriched uranium. Once the Iranians reach the last step, and the sanctions have been entirely lifted, there would be a suspension of the medium-enriched uranium production at the Fordow underground site, according to the plan, the Times reported.

Obama administration officials told the Times that the deal was intended to generate headlines but would not guarantee that Iran could not produce a weapon.

“The way they have structured it, you can move the fuel around, and it stays inside the country,” the Times quoted an unnamed senior Obama administration official as saying. The official said the nuclear program could be restarted in a “nanosecond…they don't have to answer any questions from the inspectors.”

Netanyahu’s other bomb


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a cartoon drawing of a bomb during his speech to the 67th United Nations General Assembly Debate on Sept. 27, the world laughed. But I didn’t.

I thought he was one bomb cartoon short.

Netanyahu’s Wile E. Coyote-worthy drawing was meant to illustrate the urgency the world faced as Iran rushed to complete its nuclear program. The prime minister drew a red line near the top of the illustration to show the point at which Iran would enter its final stage in the development of a nuclear weapon.

If the cartoon bomb spawned a thousand Photoshop spoofs on the Internet, it also kept the Iran nuclear threat on the front page. But did it change anyone’s mind on the issue? Probably not.

What would have done that trick is a second bomb cartoon. This one would have illustrated the ticking bomb of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

That fuse has been lit since June 1967, when Israel captured Palestinian territories during the Six-Day War. 

The second cartoon would have shown the number of Palestinians in “Greater Israel” as a percentage of the Jewish population in 1967 and the number now. Then Netanyahu would draw a “red line” at the point when the number approaches something like parity, when the two-state solution will be officially dead and Israel will face two choices: a single American-style melting pot where Arabs, Jews and Christians put centuries of rancor, bloodshed and nationalistic claims aside and forge a common national identity, or civil war.

Most people think the latter is more likely.

“Even if the minimalist interpretation [of Palestinian population] is largely correct,” Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, wrote in the May 2009 issue of Commentary Magazine, “it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population — one-quarter of the population under age 19 — and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs. Israel, the Jewish state, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.”

Oren wasn’t the first to articulate what he called the “Arab Demographic Threat” as an existential threat. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, victorious in the Six-Day War, immediately foresaw the consequences of annexation and pushed for only interim military control. In the 40 years since, more urgent threats to Israel have come and gone, but the issue of Palestinian lives intertwined with Israeli ones remains the most stubborn, and the most toxic.

“The lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel — and not an Iranian bomb — is the most serious threat to Israel’s future,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a 2010 interview with Haaretz.

That’s why Netanyahu, to be even more effective, needs to show two cartoons, one of the Iranian bomb, the other of the demographic bomb. What’s more, he needs to offer Israelis, the United States and the world a vision of the future that defuses both.

Linking these two is not as odd or peace-niky as it might seem.

In a little-known paper published by the right-leaning Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, professor Yehezkel Dror argued that the best way for Israel to gain the strategic and moral upper hand following an attack on Iran is to simultaneously pursue a serious peace effort along the lines of the 10-year-old Arab Peace Initiative floated by Saudi Arabia.

Dror outlines the reasons attacking Iran may prove to be the best of many bad options. But even a successful attack, he writes, would risk alienating Israel’s friends and embolden its enemies.

By pushing a comprehensive peace proposal in concert with the Iranian attack, Israel could accomplish four objectives: reduce the danger to Israel of the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict (the second time bomb); build international and Middle East support to keep Iran from rebuilding its nuclear program; improve Israel’s global standing relative to any unintended negative consequences of an Iran attack; and, finally, prevent a deterioration in Israel-U.S. relations and help Israel upgrade its relations with China.

“An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities requires parallel political action to contain and reduce damage to Israel resulting from that attack, which could be serious,” Dror writes. “It would be beneficial, and indeed essential, for Israel, therefore, to put forth a comprehensive Middle East peace proposal. … Such an Israeli initiative would be necessary even without attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, given such an attack, the initiative becomes all the more critical, urgent, and opportune.”

Both an attack on Iran and a peace initiative carry grave risks and great potential rewards. Next time the prime minister finds himself in front of an international audience, he might want to consider bringing an extra sheet of poster board and another Magic Marker. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism

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.

Iran to enrich uranium to 60 percent if nuclear talks fail


Iran would enrich uranium up to 60 percent purity if negotiations with major powers over its nuclear program fail, an Iranian lawmaker said on Tuesday, in comments that may add to Western alarm about Iranian intentions.

Mansour Haqiqatpour, deputy head of parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said 60 percent enrichment would be to yield fuel for nuclear submarines, which often require uranium refined to high levels.

But it would also take Iran another significant step closer to the 90 percent enrichment level needed to make atomic bombs, which the West suspects is the Islamic state's ultimate aim. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful energy only.

Even though it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and not the parliament – who decides foreign policy issues, Haqiqatpour's remarks were a sign of Iranian defiance in the face of Western demands to curb sensitive nuclear activity.

Iran now enriches uranium to a 3.5 percent concentration of the fissile isotope U-235 – suitable for nuclear power plants – as well as 20 percent, which it says it needs for a medical research reactor.

Israel, Iran's arch foe, says Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability and last week warned the Islamic state will be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon by mid-2013, referring to its growing stock of 20 percent material.

But Western experts believe Iran is still a few years away from being able to assemble a nuclear-armed missile.

Haqiqatpour's comments, carried by Iran's English-language Press TV, appeared to be an attempt to show the six world powers involved in diplomacy with Tehran that it has no intention of backing down in the long-running nuclear dispute.

The powers – including the United States, Russia, China and six European heavyweights – want Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment, shut down the underground facility where this is done and ship out the stockpile.

Iran wants the powers to recognize its “right” to refine uranium and also ease sanctions on it. Three rounds of talks since April have failed to make any breakthrough.

“In case our talks with the (six powers) fail to pay off, Iranian youth will master (the technology for) enrichment up to 60 percent to fuel submarines and ocean-going ships,” Haqiqatpour said.

The powers should know that “if these talks continue into next year, Iran cannot guarantee it would keep its enrichment limited to 20 percent. This enrichment is likely to increase to 40 or 50 percent,” he said.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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