Sadjadpour said some White House officials question whether Iran is trying to provoke an Israeli strike in order to rally support at home and abroad.
U.S. Worried Iran on Brink of Underground Nuclear Activity
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration is concerned Iran is on the verge of enriching uranium at a facility deep underground near the Muslim holy city of Qom, a move that may strengthen those advocating tougher action to stop Iran’s suspected atomic weapons program.
Iranian nuclear scientists at the Fordo facility appear to be within weeks of producing 20 percent enriched uranium, according to Iran analysts and nuclear specialists in close communication with U.S. officials and atomic inspectors. Enriched uranium is used to fuel power plants and reactors, and may be further processed into atomic weapons material.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, worry Iran’s actions may bolster calls for a military response and ratchet up pressure to limit Iran’s oil exports, which might send oil prices soaring.
“Senior advisers to President Obama privately express concern that Israel might see Iran’s commencement of the Fordo facility” as a justification for a military strike, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who has frequent discussions with U.S. officials.
Sadjadpour said some White House officials question whether Iran is trying to provoke an Israeli strike in order to rally support at home and abroad. The Obama administration, he said, wants to prevent miscalculations that might trigger a military conflict. The U.S. and Israel say military action remains an option if diplomacy and other measures fail to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Two State Department officials who direct U.S. policy on Iran’s nuclear activities are heading to Israel this week. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Robert Einhorn, a State Department special adviser for nonproliferation, will be in Israel Dec. 17 and 18 to discuss regional matters including “common security challenges,” according to a State Department announcement today.
Their trip follows Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s meetings yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in Washington. It “reinforces the strong and enduring security cooperation between our two governments,” the State Department said.
The visits come amid growing pressure to tighten financial and energy sanctions on Iran. Congress this week approved measures against the Central Bank of Iran that the administration previously resisted on the grounds that targeting an important oil supplier for Asia and Europe threatens to fracture the coalition against Iran and raise oil prices.
“There’s absolutely a risk” that the price of oil would go up, “which would mean that Iran would, in fact, have more money to fuel its nuclear ambitions,” Sherman testified on Dec. 1.
Crude for January delivery fell $1.08 to $93.87 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange today, the lowest settlement since Nov. 2. Prices have risen 2.7 percent this year after climbing 15 percent in 2010. Futures have tumbled 6.3 percent in the past two days.
Concerns about confrontations with Iran sent oil up 2.4 percent on Dec. 13, the biggest gain in almost four weeks, on speculation shipments from the Persian Gulf would be disrupted after a report that Iran will hold drills to practice closing the Strait of Hormuz.
Gholamreza Jalali, head of Iran’s civil defense organization, said yesterday that Iran will move its uranium enrichment centers to locations that are safer from attack if necessary, according to the state-run Mehr news agency.
U.S. officials say Iran is close to starting up Fordo’s two cascades of 174 centrifuges each, fast-spinning machines that enrich uranium for use as a nuclear fuel. Uranium enriched at higher concentrations of 90 percent can be used for a bomb.
Dennis Ross, who until last month was special assistant to President Barack Obama for the region including Iran, said Israel has reason to be concerned about enrichment at Qom.
Iran’s accumulation of low-enriched uranium, its decision to enrich to nearly 20 percent “when there is no justification for it,” its hardening of sites, and other “activities related to possible weaponization” are factors that “affect the Israeli calculus and ours,” Ross, now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail. “Qom is important, but it is worth remembering that IAEA inspectors go there, and I would not isolate Qom and say this alone is the Israeli red-line” to spur a military response.
Last month, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran moved a large cylinder of 5 percent enriched uranium from the Natanz fuel enrichment plant to the Fordo facility near Qom. Iranian nuclear engineers have installed centrifuges that need only to be connected to cooling and electric lines to become operational, the IAEA said.
The Nov. 8 report went further than any previous public document in listing nuclear activities that inspectors said had no purpose other than for weapons capability. Iran insists its program is for peaceful energy and medical research.
Nuclear physicist David Albright, founder of the independent Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former weapons inspector, said in an interview yesterday that what concerns Israel most is Iran’s plan to triple the rate of enrichment by installing new generation centrifuges at Fordo that are being tested at the Natanz site.
‘Slower Than Expected’
“The program has gone slower than expected -- they’re having trouble building and operating the centrifuges, which could be the result of Stuxnet or other sabotage,” Albright said, referring to a computer worm that is believed to have damaged Iran’s centrifuges last year.
At the current rate, Albright said, it would likely take Iran till the end of 2013 to enrich enough 20 percent uranium to be further processed for use in one bomb. If Iran were to get three sets of new generation centrifuges working at Fordo and Natanz, they could produce enough material by the end of next year that could be further enriched to weapons-grade, he said.
“Where Israel would get more nervous is if Iran started to install hundreds of advanced centrifuges underground,” which would mean a “breakout capability over about six months,” Albright said, referring to the ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. And at Fordo, “there’s no way to blow it up because it’s 90 meters under rock.”
Iran only admitted the existence of the Fordo plant, built deep into a mountain south of the capital Tehran, in September 2009 after U.S., British and French intelligence agencies gathered information on the clandestine facility.
In Congress, growing concern has played out in a measure to sanction transactions with the Iranian central bank in an effort to choke off its overseas oil sales.
Iran is the world’s third-largest crude exporter and oil is Iran’s major source of income, supplying more than 50 percent of the national budget, according to International Monetary Fund figures. The second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, Iran exported an average 2.58 million barrels a day in 2010, according to OPEC statistics.
--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Ladane Nasseri in Tehran, Robert Tuttle in Doha, Margaret Talev in Washington and Mark Shenk in New York. Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
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