Underground Iran nuclear enrichment makes diplomatic path suddenly rockier

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.

Iranian President's Office/AP/File
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.

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.

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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But advocates of a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear defiance of the international community insist on the contrary that ever-tightening sanctions could doom the chances of negotiations resuming.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, says that stronger sanctions are on the verge of becoming an end in themselves rather than a means to an end – in this case compelling Iran to negotiate a change in its nuclear program. 

And if the European Union sticks to its plans to impose an oil embargo on Iran by the end of the month – the EU buys about one-fifth of Iran’s oil – the window for diplomacy is likely to close for good, Mr. Parsi adds.

The EU has exchanged letters with Tehran on a resumption of nuclear talks, but Western powers insist that the Iranians first accept placing a halt to their enrichment activity on the negotiating table. The Iranians say they will never give up uranium enrichment, and their announcement of higher-grade enrichment at the Fardo facility appears to underscore that position.

The Obama administration insists it has not given up on a two-track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions to compel Tehran to modify its behavior.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the administration is following a “responsible” path of applying both diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. In a taped interview that aired on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Secretary Panetta suggested the strategy is working because Iran is still not at the point of building a nuclear weapon.

He went on to warn Iran’s leaders that, if it comes to it, the US won’t allow Iran to take the step of going nuclear.                        

That is not new administration policy; Obama has said the same many times before.

But word of Iran’s imminent enrichment at an underground facility risks making the US position sound like an idle threat, since the clear purpose of moving Iran’s highest-grade enrichment activity to a site deep inside a mountain is to shield it as much as possible from military attack.

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