Israel, US dismiss Iran's most recent nuclear progress claims

Iran made a show yesterday of the loading of domestically produced fuel rods and installment of new centrifuges. Israel and the US see the moves as bravado.

Iranian Presidents office/AP/File
In this file photo released by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, listens to a technician during his visit of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles south of the capital Tehran. Iran said on Feb. 15 it is dramatically closer to mastering the production of nuclear fuel even as the U.S. weighs tougher pressures and Tehran's suspected shadow war with Israel brings probes far beyond the Middle East.

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Both the US and Israel, who are leading the international community’s effort to block Iran’s nuclear progress, have said that Iran’s most recent announcement of a “nuclear breakthrough” is inflated.

Iran’s Press TV reported yesterday that 3,000 new centrifuges had been installed at the main enrichment site of Natanz and that the country had loaded domestically produced nuclear fuel rods into its medical research reactor, Bloomberg reports. The station broadcast photos of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overseeing the loading of the fuel rod, according to the Associated Press.

“Our view on this is that it’s not terribly new and it’s not terribly impressive,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington yesterday, describing the announcement as “hyped,” according to Bloomberg. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the presentation a “show,” saying that Iran wants its nuclear program to seem “irreversible,” according to Associated Press. “Iran is trying to "make it seem ... like the point of no return is already behind them, which is not the case," Mr. Barak said.

Israel's dismissals come as a surprise after months of dire Israeli warnings about Iran’s nuclear progress. Israel, the US, and much of Europe believe Iran is working toward a nuclear weapon – which Tehran has denied – and Israel has been the most strident voice.

Dennis Ross, until recently one of President Obama’s chief advisers on the Middle East, said that the Press TV report was “more symbolism than anything else” and an effort to prove that punishing US and EU sanctions are having little effect.

[Mr. Ross said that] Iran has “claimed for years that they are installing next generation centrifuges, and they continue to have material and technical problems that bedevil their operation.”

There is no evidence that Iran has overcome those failings, Ross said. They are trying “to create the image of progress even when they are not advancing, now because they want to suggest they are not being affected by the pressure and isolation” of sanctions, he said.

Iran’s announcements may have been timed for the day its leaders sent a letter to the EU about resuming talks to signal that the nation is “in a position of strength,” Peter Crail, a research analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said in an interview. These were “posturing, more than real advances,” he said.

David Albright, a physicist and former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, told Bloomberg that the fuel rods are not difficult to produce and don’t have military implications. Only a “handful” of countries – the US among them – can build the fuel plates needed for the reactor, Iranian officials said.

Yesterday, Iran also sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announcing that it was ready to resume talks, accepting an offer made in October. Agence France-Presse reports that the letter was likely intended to coincide with the nuclear announcement.

The declarations [of nuclear progress] were meant to underline Iran's progress in mastering all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and underline its commitment to what it said was a purely peaceful atomic programme for energy generation and medical use.

They also underlined the Islamic republic's determination to push on with nuclear activities despite US and EU sanctions aimed at throttling its economy, especially its all-important oil exports – and despite speculation Israel or the United States could launch air strikes against its nuclear facilities.

AFP also noted that Iran's state-run media claimed that the nuclear progress gave Iran " 'the upper hand' in its future negotiations with the P5+1," a reference to the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

The New York Times notes that the international community is watching Iran closely for signs of the effect that sanctions are having. It reported that this week’s events – on top of the nuclear announcements, Iran is suspected of attempting to assassinate Israelis abroad – “suggest that Iranian leaders are responding frantically, and with increasing unpredictability, to the tightening of sanctions by the West.”

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