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As U.S. and Israeli positions diverge, Iran nuke work progresses

Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks during a press conference after the end of the talks between envoys from Iran and six world powers about Tehran's nuclear program, in Baghdad, Iraq, May 24, 2012. Credit: EPA/ALI ABBAS.
Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks during a press conference after the end of the talks between envoys from Iran and six world powers about Tehran's nuclear program, in Baghdad, Iraq, May 24, 2012. Credit: EPA/ALI ABBAS.

There are gaps between the positions of the Israeli prime minister and the White House on negotiations with Iran, sources in Jerusalem said on Sunday.

The remarks were made following the official visit of U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman in Israel last weekend to discuss regional developments. Sherman, who serves as head of the U.S. negotiating team for nuclear talks with Iran, traveled to Israel with officials from the White House’s National Security Council and met on Saturday night with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror.

According to a senior official in Jerusalem, the Israeli position presented during the meeting held that the three conditions initially set by Israel should be executed all at once: the dismantling of the nuclear site in Qom, the cessation of all uranium enrichment, and the removal of all enriched material from Iran. However, these were not the same demands the world superpowers made to Iran, according to the official.

“This is not the position that was presented by the superpowers in talks with Iran,” he said. “The Iranians did not concede to anything and just earned time. They did not come intending to find a real solution, and they managed to gain time through the negotiating process. So far they have earned an additional eight weeks, during which they have been able to advance their nuclear plans.”

However, Israel and the U.S. do agree that a nuclear Iran is a threat and that the Islamic Republic must dismantle its nuclear program, just as Netanyahu declared 16 years ago, the same senior official noted.

Sherman and the American team stressed during their meeting in Israel that there was no intention to remove sanctions imposed on Iran, particularly the oil embargo by the European Union which takes effect in early July.

Meanwhile, a new report released May 25 by the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that Iran is enriching uranium to 27 percent—far above the rate of enrichment which Tehran has publicly declared.

The Iranians have previously said that they are enriching uranium to 20 percent, but U.N. inspectors who visited the Fordo enrichment in February found evidence that uranium was being enriched there to 27 percent. Although uranium needs to be enriched to 90 percent to be warhead quality, getting from the 20 percent threshold to the level of nuclear weapons is relatively simple.

Tehran described the agency’s findings as a “technical issue,” claiming that the higher enrichment rate was considered a “standard deviation.” Washington, in the meantime, also chose to give the Iranians the benefit of the doubt.

“There are a number of possible explanations for this, including the one that the Iranians have provided,” U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said May 25. “But we are going to depend on the IAEA to get to the bottom of it.”

The IAEA report also said the Iranians were advancing in their construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak, whose operation would allow Tehran to develop a nuclear bomb using plutonium. The Iranians have previously announced that the reactor will begin operating in the third quarter of 2013.

Fereidoun Abbasi, Iran’s nuclear chief, said Sunday there were no reasons for his country to halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers, and that Iran was planning two new reactors.

Abbasi was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying that Iran would continue the higher enrichment level for a medical research reactor that produces isotopes for treatment of about 1 million cancer patients in Iran.

“There is no reason for us to back down on 20 percent-level enrichment, because we produce only as much 20 percent material as we need,” Abbasi said. “Not more, not less.”

The nuclear chief also said Iran was planning to build at least two new nuclear power plants next to an existing facility that became operational with Russia’s help last year.

Abbasi was quoted by state TV as saying Sunday that Iran was in the very early stages of planning the new 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plants, and that it might begin construction within a year or two.

He also said Iran had not yet been convinced to allow the U.N. nuclear agency access to a military complex to probe suspicions that in 2003 Tehran secretly tested explosives needed to set off a nuclear bomb. The suspected blasts would have taken place inside a pressure chamber.

Abbasi’s statement about enrichment echoed Iran’s objections last week at a meeting with world powers in Baghdad to a proposal to suspend 20 percent enrichment in exchange for a U.S.-supported package that would include supplying Iran with radioactive material and civilian plane spare parts.

The Iranian nuclear chief said a visit by IAEA inspectors to the Parchin military site, southeast of Tehran, would not come any time soon.

“We haven’t been convinced yet (to allow an IAEA visit to Parchin). No reasons and documents have been presented to enable us to arrange a visit to Parchin, which is a military site,” he was quoted by ISNA as saying.

Iran has never said whether the alleged chamber exists, describing Parchin as a conventional military site, not a nuclear facility.

Before the publication of the IAEA’s report May 25, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on the last round of nuclear talks with the Iranians in Baghdad, saying that significant differences remained between Iran and world powers.

Clinton told a news conference May 24 in Washington it was up to Iran “to close the gaps.”

She said the six-nation P5+1 bloc had presented a detailed proposal to Iran, focused on all aspects of 20 percent uranium enrichment and based on concrete reciprocal steps. Iran presented its own ideas.

They will seek to address the differences at the next talks in Moscow in June 18-19. Clinton said sanctions against Iran would remain in place.

While Clinton focuses on diplomacy, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been gearing up for another scenario—the failure of nuclear talks. Panetta told ABC News that he hoped a solution would be reached at the talks, but noted that the U.S. had “plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves.”

“The fundamental premise is that neither the United States or the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon,” Panetta told ABC.

Meanwhile, Tehran continues to find ways to circumvent international sanctions. The governor of the Bank of Iran, Mahmoud Bahmani, claimed over the weekend that Iran had implemented an alternative to the SWIFT system, the international bank-transfer messaging service, that cut Iran off two months ago, PressTV reported. Bahmani said the system had already been activated, but declined to provide details.

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