New Iran sanctions more likely, or less, after nuclear bomb report?

New report that Iran is amassing more low-enriched uranium – and has enough to make two nuclear bombs – is likely to spur the move toward tougher sanctions. But Israel's raid on Gaza aid flotilla may stall any international action on Iran.

By , Staff writer

Iran has continued to amass larger quantities of low-enriched uranium and is successfully moving on to a higher degree of enrichment, according to a new report by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency.

The two findings should serve to bolster US efforts to push a new resolution of sanctions on Iran through the UN Security Council, some nuclear and Mideast experts say.

But these same analysts add that Monday’s storming by Israeli commandos of a Turkish-flagged ship carrying aid to Gaza is a new “wild card” in the sanctions diplomacy that could at least put off a resolution vote on Iran. The international uproar over the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla could also mean a sanctions vote is stalled long enough for the resolution to be watered down further, others say.

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“I think this new report should have the effect of strengthening the determination of the council to proceed to tougher sanctions,” says James Phillips, a Mideast expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But now it seems that with this incident with the not-so-peaceful flotilla, the vote may be pushed back – and we could even see some sanctions in [the resolution] stripped out.”

Others say the flotilla incident may delay but will not derail a Security Council resolution, given the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report.

“This flotilla incident is a new wild card that may have thrown a wrench in the timing of a vote,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “But it’s so clear now [from the IAEA report] that Iran is blowing off the agency and that any pretense they are going to comply [with IAEA requests] is gone,” he adds. “Even China will be worried by Iran’s disregard for the agency.”

Nearing weapons-grade uranium?

The IAEA reported Monday that Iran is successfully enriching a small stock of uranium to nearly 20 percent purity – a development that could mean Iran is preparing the way to move rapidly to the 90-percent level needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran maintains its nuclear program is solely for peaceful power-generation purposes.

The report also confirmed that Iran has amassed a stockpile of low-enriched uranium large enough to produce two nuclear weapons if purified to the requisite 90-percent level. That fact was already known, but confirmation appears likely to knock further support out from under the agreement announced last month among Iran, Brazil, and Turkey to remove about half of Iran’s stockpile to Turkey.

The prospect of leaving a bomb’s worth of low-enriched uranium in Iran made the so-called tripartite agreement a nonstarter for the US and other Western countries.

The IAEA report documents that Iran is producing about 3 kilograms of 20-percent uranium a month, which Mr. Albright says “suggests this particular centrifuge cascade is not having any problems.” Centrifuges are the machines that spin at high rates to further purify low-enriched uranium.

“What this report tells us is that Iran’s centrifuge program is broadening and deepening,” Albright says, meaning it is improving technically even as it undertakes new chores like high purification.

Uranium purification equipment gone missing

The IAEA report also confirms that certain equipment for uranium purification that it took note of in an earlier report has gone missing. The equipment in question can be involved in production of the uranium metal needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

“Even China is going to look at this and raise its eyebrows,” Albright says.

But Heritage’s Mr. Phillips is not so sure. “The Brazilian-Turkish fuel deal has given China and Russia the cover to push for even more gutting of the proposed resolution, and I fear now this flotilla incident will only add to that,” he says.

Still, Albright says the resolution will be “worthwhile” if it does pass, because it would open the way for the US and some European countries to proceed to harsher “and more meaningful” additional sanctions on their own. “China will toughen its enforcement of council measures after this [IAEA] report,” he adds, “and that’s going to really hurt Iran.”

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