Iran's moves to speed up nuclear programme troubles West
Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, the UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, a defiant step that will worry Western powers ahead of a resumption of talks with Tehran next week.
In a confidential report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said 180 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had been put in place at the facility near the town of Natanz in central Iran. They were not yet operating.
If launched successfully, such machines could enable Iran to
speed up significantly its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to devise a nuclear weapon. Iran says it is refining uranium only for peaceful energy purposes.
Iran’s installation of new-generation centrifuges would be “yet another provocative step,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.
White House spokesman Jay Carney warned Iran that it would face further pressure and isolation if it failed to address international concerns about its nuclear programme in the Feb. 26 talks with world powers in the Kazakh city of Almaty.
Britain’s Foreign Office said the IAEA’s finding was of “serious concern”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the report “proves that Iran continues to advance swiftly towards the red line” that he laid down last year.
Netanyahu, who has strongly hinted at possible military action if sanctions and diplomacy fail to halt Iran’s nuclear drive, told the United Nations in September Iran must not be allowed to amass enough higher-enriched uranium to make even a single warhead.
Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop a capability to make atomic bombs. Tehran says it is Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal that threatens peace.
Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iranian media the UN agency’s report showed “no evidence of diversion of material and nuclear activities towards military purposes.”
US lawmakers meanwhile are crafting a bill designed to stop the European Central Bank from handling business from the Iranian government, a US congressional aide said on Thursday, in an attempt to keep Tehran from using euros to develop its nuclear programme.
In the early stages of drafting, it would target the ECB’s cross-border payment system and impose US economic penalties on entities that use the European Central Bank to do business with Iran’s government, the aide said on condition of anonymity.
The aide disclosed the new push for sanctions ahead of fresh talks on Tuesday in which major powers hope to persuade the Iranian government to rein in its atomic activities, which the West suspects may be a cover to develop a bomb capability.
It was not clear how many of the new centrifuges Iran aims to install at Natanz, which is designed for tens of thousands.
An IAEA note informing member states late last month about Iran’s plans implied that it could be up to 3,000 or so.
Iran has for years been trying to develop centrifuges more efficient than the erratic 1970s IR-1 model it now uses, but their introduction for full-scale production has been dogged by delays and technical hurdles, experts and diplomats say.
The deployment of the new centrifuges underlines Iran’s continued refusal to bow to Western pressure to curb its nuclear programme, and may further complicate efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically, without a spiral into Middle East war.