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Underground Iran nuclear enrichment makes diplomatic path suddenly rockier (+video)

The nuclear enrichment at a once-secret underground facility in Iran, confirmed Monday by the UN, is seen as both an argument to resume negotiations and an obstacle to their resumption.

By Staff writer / January 9, 2012

In this 2008 file photo provided by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (c.) visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles south of the capital Tehran. Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site, reported on Sunday.

Iranian President's Office/AP/File

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Washington

The United States and Europe say they still hold out hope for a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear threat, but news that Tehran has launched uranium enrichment underground is not going to make the road to resumed talks any easier.

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Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, confirmed Monday that Iran has begun high-grade enrichment operations at a once-secret facility whose construction was revealed in 2009.

Iranian nuclear officials had announced over the weekend that centrifuges installed in the underground Fardo facility near the holy city of Qom were ready to start spinning and enrich uranium to 20 percent purity – a major step toward the 90 percent uranium purity that would be needed to fuel a nuclear weapon.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that enrichment to 20 percent at the Fordo facility constitutes a "further escalation" of Iran's violations of its international obligations. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and a member of the IAEA.

The European Union has been pressing Iran to return to international talks on its nuclear program that broke down over a year ago – talks the Iranians say they want to restart – but critics say the West is being played by the Iranians.

The Iranians may have announced the Fardo enrichment as a means of underscoring the urgency of restarting nuclear talks, some Iran analysts say. But they add that the intensifying brinkmanship on each side could also make chances of a return to diplomacy that much more remote.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under President George W. Bush, says the Iranians are testing Western powers’ resolve to stop their advance towards developing a bomb.

He also says that under President Obama, the purpose of ever-stronger sanctions on the Iranian economy has morphed from stopping Iran’s nuclear progress to pressuring Iran to return to the negotiating table – a weakening of objectives that Mr. Bolton says is not lost on the Iranians.

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