UN report on Iran's nuclear progress signals tricky road ahead for Obama

Iran doubled its capacity at an underground enrichment site, the IAEA reported. Israeli officials say Netanyahu will ask Obama in September to commit to military action to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

Gali Tibbon/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pictured in this Aug. 27 photo, in Jerusalem, is expected to meet with President Obama when he is in the US in September to attend the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency’s latest estimates of progress in Iran’s uranium enrichment program are a guarantee – if there was ever any doubt – that Iran, and Israel, are two foreign policy issues that aren’t going to sit on hold until after the US presidential election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already putting the US on notice that he has no intentions of keeping his concerns about Iran in a pocket until after November. Mr. Netanyahu is expected to meet with President Obama when he is in the US in September to attend the UN General Assembly.

Netanyahu says he will focus on the dangers Iran poses to global peace and security when he addresses the assembly, and Israeli officials have said he will use the expected meeting with Mr. Obama to seek a US commitment to take military action to stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report finds that Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges at an underground nuclear site. Centrifuges are machines used to spin uranium rapidly to increase its purity for use in nuclear reactors – or to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

The report also concludes that Iran has stymied all efforts by the IAEA to access the underground Fordo site and determine how operational it is and what functions it is capable of undertaking. But it says that over the summer Iran has installed three-quarters of the centrifuges it would need to begin producing nuclear fuel at the site.

The underground Fordo site is so worrisome, in particular to Israel, because it presumably would put Iran’s nuclear fuel production out of reach of all but the most sophisticated and penetrating military capabilities – such as those held by the US.

The White House reacted to the IAEA report Thursday by saying that the “window” for resolving the Iranian nuclear challenge other than by use of force “will not remain open indefinitely.” But it said there is still “time and space” for diplomacy and the harsh economic sanctions the world has imposed to convince Iran to alter its course.

The IAEA report notes, for example, that only about a third of the centrifuges at Fordo are operational, and that, furthermore, the machines being installed there are of an older technology.

Obama is not keen to see Iran and all the issues it would entail – the validity of his diplomatic approach to America’s adversaries, the depth of his commitment to Israel – flare up in the weeks before Election Day. But some Israeli officials have expressed concerns that Israel’s leverage with the US – and whoever is in the White House next year – will diminish after the presidential campaign, and therefore Israel has no choice but to angle for a US military commitment now.

Many military analysts believe an operational Fordo facility would be out of reach of Israel’s military capabilities and any campaign to take out the facility would require US military participation.

The pressure to take part in an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations is not sitting well with the US military leadership. On Thursday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he did not want to be “complicit” in a military attack that in his view would only set back Iran’s program, but which would also destroy the international coalition that has been constructed to pressure Iran into changing course.

General Dempsey said an attack would "clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran's nuclear program," while at the same time the "international coalition" now pressuring Iran "could be undone if it was attacked prematurely."

"I don't want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it," Dempsey said, speaking to journalists in London.

Some Israeli officials are warning that it is such talk – in contrast to firm commitments to attack if Iran does not back down – that is presenting Iran with the picture of a less-than determined international community, and thus with the idea that it can advance its nuclear program with impunity.

On Friday, Israel’s vice premier, Moshe Ya’alon, said Iran is hearing mixed messages from the world that is making it feel invulnerable, adding that it is “our friends in the United States, who in our opinion, are in part responsible for this feeling in Iran."

It’s a line of criticism that seems certain to hit the presidential campaign trail come September.

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