Archive for November 6, 2019

As Iran expands enrichment, Netanyahu vows it will never have nukes

November 6, 2019

Source: As Iran expands enrichnt, Netanyahu vows it will never have nukes | The Times of Israel

Iran seeks to ‘envelop and destroy Israel,’ PM warns after Rouhani announces latest violation of 2015 nuclear deal and restart of processing uranium at underground complex

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a KKL-JNF hosted a gala dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem on November 05, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to “never let Iran develop nuclear weapons” after Tehran announced it was expanding its uranium enrichment efforts in a further breach of the 2015 nuclear deal.

‏”Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said at an event in Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

“We fight back,” he added.

“And I also want to say, given Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear weapons program, expand its enrichment of uranium for making atomic bombs, I repeat here once again: We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world.”

Netanyahu spoke just hours after Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran will begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges located at the heavily fortified Fordo facility in Iran’s Qom Province.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

The move marks Tehran’s latest step away from its nuclear deal with world powers since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord over a year ago.

The development is significant as the centrifuges previously spun empty, without gas injection, under the accord. It also increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord, which has all but collapsed.

A statement carried in Iranian media later Tuesday said enrichment would go to five percent beginning Wednesday, when the centrifuges at Fordo would be injected with uranium gas.

Rouhani’s remarks, carried live on Iranian state television, came a day after Tehran’s nuclear program chief said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the enrichment increase would be carried out in front of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog now monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal, according to Iran’s Mehr news.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran, Iran, October 14, 2019. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

“Salehi said that it had been decided that there will not be [20%] uranium enrichment at Fordo for the time being,” the Iranian outlet reported.

Under the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade level of 90%. This summer, it began surpassing this level, in violation of the agreement, up to 4.5%, as a form of retaliation toward the United States, which has been steadily imposing sanctions on Iran since the White House pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.

There was no immediate reaction from the IAEA to Tuesday’s announcements.

The European Union on Monday called on Iran to return to the deal, while the White House sanctioned members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its maximalist campaign against Tehran. Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said Iran’s reduced compliance with the nuclear deal “pose a risk to our national security.”

He added: “We want to find a way forward through constructive international dialogue but Iran needs to stand by the commitments it made and urgently return to full compliance.”

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran (IRIB via AP)

France, too, urged Iran to reverse course. “We urge Iran to go back on its decisions which contradict the accord,” the French foreign ministry said.

Rouhani stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid US sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.

The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The nuclear deal let those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

In this January 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President’s Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said Monday.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a US military surveillance drone.

Iran has regularly threatened to destroy Israel, and has developed ballistic missiles believed in the West to be intended to carry nuclear warheads in the future.

File: Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a leaked recording Tuesday, a senior Israel Defense Forces general was heard warning Israeli treasury officials that Iran could inflict heavy damage if it chooses to attack Israel, and asking for a budget increase for the army to counter the threat.

“There are Iranian Quds forces in the Golan Heights, and that’s not fear-mongering, they’re there,” head of IDF Operations Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva can be heard saying in the remarks carried by the Kan public broadcaster.

“All signs are indicating that…2020 has the potential to be an unfavorable year from a security perspective,” he said, noting Iran’s expansion of its missile capabilities in recent years and their recent use against Saudi oil facilities.

 

Iran starts injecting uranium gas into Fordo centrifuges, breaking nuke deal

November 6, 2019

Source: Iran starts injecting uranium gas into Fordo centrifuges, breaking nuke deal | The Times of Israel

IAEA inspectors on hand for latest pullback from JCPOA, as Fordo is converted from research center back into active nuclear facility with enrichment capabilities

A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)

A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)

Iran began inserting uranium gas into centrifuges at the Fordo nuclear facility, state television announced Wednesday, marking its latest step away from the nuclear deal.

Iranian state media said uranium hexafluoride gas was injected into advanced centrifuges at the Fordo nuclear facility Wednesday, a day after Iran announced the move. It said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were on hand.

As part of the 2015 accord with world powers limiting its nuclear program, Iran was barred from enriching uranium at Fordo, which was converted to a research center.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who announced the move Tuesday, confirmed on Twitter that enrichment activity had restarted at Fordo, converting the facility back into an active enrichment center.

Hassan Rouhani

@HassanRouhani

Iran’s 4th step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA by injecting gas to 1044 centrifuges begins today. Thanks to US policy and its allies, Fordow will soon be back to full operation. https://twitter.com/HassanRouhani/status/1126018907502936065 

Hassan Rouhani

@HassanRouhani

Starting today, Iran does not keep its enriched uranium and produced heavy water limited. The EU/E3+2 will face Iran’s further actions if they can not fulfill their obligations within the next 60 days and secure Iran’s interests. Win-Win conditions will be accepted.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.

Since the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal last year and imposed tough sanctions, Iran has taken a number of steps to curb its adherence to the international agreement in a bid to receive economic relief from the European signatories to the pact.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased US pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iran’s state TV said.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Reacting to Iran’s announcement Tuesday it would resume work at Fordo, the US accused Tehran of “nuclear extortion,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his vow to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic described the bloc as “concerned” by Iran’s decision. US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus decried the move, saying Iran originally built Fordo as a “fortified, underground bunker in which to conduct secret uranium enrichment work.”

“Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program, at the Fordo facility or elsewhere, other than a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation,” Ortagus said.

Fordo sits some 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Qom, a Shiite holy city and the site of a former ammunition dump. Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose.

Iran state TV airs images of Russian-made S-300 long-range missiles arriving at the Fordo nuclear site in central Iran, August 28, 2016. (Screenshot/Press TV)

Iran acknowledged Fordo’s existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

The centrifuges at Fordo are first-generation IR-1s. The nuclear deal allows those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 IR-1s at the Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

Rouhani’s announcement came after Ali Akhbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Monday that Tehran had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges operating in the country to 60.

An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

In this January 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President’s Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

Experts described Iran’s announcement Tuesday as a major tear to the unraveling nuclear deal.

“They’re getting closer and closer to muscle. They aren’t cutting fat right now,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University who worked on the deal while at the State Department.

Rouhani on Tuesday did not say whether the centrifuges would produce enriched uranium. He stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid US sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad. However, a European trade mechanism has yet to take hold and a French-proposed $15 billion line of credit has not emerged.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.

 

Asking for budget increase, IDF general warns of new Iranian threats — report 

November 6, 2019

Source: Asking for budget increase, IDF general warns of new Iranian threats — report | The Times of Israel

In recording, operations chief says Tehran could try to attack Israel in same way it hit Saudi Arabia in September, scoffs at insinuation army is ‘fear-mongering’ to get funding

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva during a ceremony in June 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva during a ceremony in June 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

An IDF general on Tuesday warned that Iran posed a growing threat to Israel through its forces throughout the region, as he asked Finance Ministry officials for a budget increase to counter this Iranian menace.

“There are Iranian Quds forces in the Golan Heights, and that’s not fear-mongering, they’re there,” the head of IDF Operations, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, could be heard saying in the remarks carried by the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday night.

“All signs indicate that… 2020 has the potential to be an unfavorable year from a security perspective,” the army general said.

Haliva mentioned the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September as an example of what Iranian forces are capable of.

This image provided on Sept. 15, 2019, by the US government and DigitalGlobe and annotated by the source, shows damage to the infrastructure at at Saudi Aramco’s Kuirais oil field in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia (US government/Digital Globe via AP)

“It was a sophisticated attack that managed to evade both US and Saudi defenses… whoever says that it can’t happen to us isn’t a professional,” he said.

In the September 14 strike, a combination of cruise missiles and attack drones were used in a devastating attack on two of Saudi Arabia’s Aramco petroleum facilities, reportedly cutting the country’s oil output in half.

Haliva made his remarks on Tuesday to the Finance Ministry’s Budget Department.

The general also noted that Iran has expanded its operations against Israel, creating a new front in Iraq and further developing its proxy Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon.

“You need to know how to manage this,” he said. “Our job is to allow [a normal] lifestyle as it is, just like this.”

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Iraq.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed these concerns later Tuesday.

‏”Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said at an event in Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

“We fight back,” he added.

The military has been pushing for a budget increase to pay for an expansive and expensive new plan to rejuvenate the IDF, known as Momentum, or Tenufa in Hebrew.

The multi-year plan will see huge investments in developing the IDF’s arsenals, including increasing its collection of mid-sized drones, obtaining large numbers of precision-guided missiles from the United States and purchasing additional air defense batteries.

It’s projected to come with a significant price tag — a plan to provide front-line forces with improved weaponry is, alone, expected to cost hundreds of millions of shekels, according to the IDF — however a budget increase has yet to be approved by the Finance Ministry and cannot be approved until a government is formed.

In recent weeks, Israeli military officials have increasingly warned of a threat posed by Iran, which the IDF believes has been emboldened by a general withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States.

“In the northern and southern arenas the situation is tense and precarious and poised to deteriorate into a conflict despite the fact that our enemies are not interested in war. In light of this, the IDF has been in an accelerated process of preparation,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said last month.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

 

Iran to increase uranium enrichment to 5%, in fresh violation of nuclear deal 

November 6, 2019

Source: Iran to increase uranium enrichment to 5%, in fresh violation of nuclear deal | The Times of Israel

Head of Tehran’s atomic energy agency says it will stay below 20% threshold; announcement comes as Rouhani says will restart centrifuges Wednesday at underground Fordo plant

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi speaks in an interview with The Associated Press at the headquarters of Iran’s atomic energy agency, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran on Tuesday evening said it would begin enriching uranium up to five percent, the latest in a series of steps moving away from the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The decision came just hours after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said the country would again begin enriching uranium at the heavily fortified underground Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran’s Qom Province.

As a key provision of the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran had agreed to halt production of nuclear materials at the facility, which was originally built and operated in secret, until its existence was exposed by the United States, Israel and other Western countries.

On Tuesday night, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran dropped a further bombshell, telling local media that the Islamic Republic would also be stepping up the level of enrichment to 5%, in a further violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allows enrichment to 3.67%.

The decisions to restart operations at Fordo and increase uranium enrichment levels were the latest moves in an ongoing game of brinkmanship between the US and Iran, which began last year when the White House pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Since then, Washington has steadily imposed more and more sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which has retaliated with both violations of the JCPOA and increasingly aggressive actions in the Persian Gulf.

In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spokesman of the organization Behrouz Kamalvandi speaks in a news briefing as advanced centrifuges are displayed in front of him, in Tehran, Iran, September 7, 2019 (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday night reiterated Israel’s intense opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

“Given Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear weapons program, expand its enrichment of uranium for making atomic bombs, I repeat here once again: We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world,” Netanyahu said in a speech Tuesday night.

On Monday, the White House announced new sanctions against members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani said Iranian nuclear scientists would start injecting uranium gas into Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges beginning Wednesday.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in New York on September 26, 2019. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Under the 2015 accord, Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. This summer, it began surpassing this level, in violation of the agreement, up to 4.5%.

Head of Iran’s nuclear agency Ali Akbar Salehi said the uranium enrichment increase to 5% would be carried out in front of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, according to Iran’s Mehr news.

“Salehi said that it had been decided that there will not be [20%] uranium enrichment at Fordow for the time being,” the Iranian outlet reported.

The 20% level is seen as a significant threshold for uranium enrichment and surpassing it could trigger more severe sanctions against Iran from European nations, which are currently fighting to save the ailing JCPOA.

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Union and Russia voiced concerns over Iran’s announcement that it would resume uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo plant.

“We are concerned by President Rouhani’s announcement today to further reduce Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow was also “monitoring the development of the situation with concern” and supported “the preservation of this deal.”

At the same time, Peskov said Russia understood Tehran’s concerns over the “unprecedented and illegal sanctions” against the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow, Russia, April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Washington’s abandonment of the 2015 deal in May last year, followed by its reimposition of crippling sanctions, prompted Tehran to begin a phased suspension of its own commitments this year.

France called on Tehran to reverse its decision to resume enrichment, saying it “goes against the Vienna agreement, which strictly limits activities in this area.”

French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said Paris remained committed to the accord and urged Iran to “fully adhere to its obligations and to cooperate fully with the IAEA,” according to Reuters.

Tuesday’s dramatic announcements came a day after Salehi said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.

There was no immediate reaction from the IAEA, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the deal

The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The nuclear deal allowed those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while letting up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran. (IRIB via AP)

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas, also known as UF-6. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said Monday.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

 

Iran shaves weeks off breakout time, but isn’t tearing up nuclear pact yet

November 6, 2019

Source: Iran shaves weeks off breakout time, but isn’t tearing up nuclear pact yet | The Times of Israel

Halting uranium enrichment at the heavily fortified Fordo was a major victory for the 2015 nuke deal; its reopening is seen as a dramatic bid by Tehran to leverage sanctions relief

President Hassan Rouhani, second left, speaks during a ceremony to unveil the Iran-made Bavar-373, a long-range surface-to-air missile system, displayed at rear, as his Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami, second right, commander of army's air defense force Gen. Alireza Sabahifard, left, and the chairman of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Mojtaba Zolnour, listen, at an undisclosed location in Iran,, August 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

President Hassan Rouhani, second left, speaks during a ceremony to unveil the Iran-made Bavar-373, a long-range surface-to-air missile system, displayed at rear, as his Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami, second right, commander of army’s air defense force Gen. Alireza Sabahifard, left, and the chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Mojtaba Zolnour, listen, at an undisclosed location in Iran,, August 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The ongoing game of brinkmanship between Tehran and Washington has entered a new, potentially dangerous level, with Iran restarting uranium enrichment at its Fordo nuclear facility and also announcing it was raising the level of this enrichment, up to five percent.

These two decisions represent a distinctly shocking and provocative move by the Islamic Republic, but they also remain easily reversible, experts say, as Iran attempts to bully its way toward financial relief while keeping just shy of prompting European countries to call for a so-called snapback of broader international sanctions.

The transformation of the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant, which is buried deep under a mountain in Iran’s Qom district, from a uranium enrichment facility to one used for other, non-nuclear purposes was a key provision of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The heavily fortified Fordo was originally built and operated in secret by Iran, until it was exposed by Western intelligence services, including Israel’s, and ultimately acknowledged by Tehran in 2009 to great international criticism. The facility is widely regarded as having been built for the explicit purpose of producing highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons far enough underground that it couldn’t be destroyed in a military strike.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Since the 2015 agreement was signed, Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges have been spinning empty. Iran’s decision to begin pumping uranium hexafluoride gas into those centrifuges on Wednesday sent a clear message that it was moving farther away from the JCPOA. However, according to a number of experts, the reactivation of Fordo will have only a modest effect on the amount of time it takes for Iran to “break out” — to develop an atomic weapon and officially become a nuclear power.

In this January 13, 2015, photo, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

“It doesn’t significantly affect the breakout timeline, but Fordo has always been one of the most sensitive aspects of the nuclear program because of its hardened, underground nature and the difficulty of destroying it,” said Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and current fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

“The danger is that this is one important, symbolic step that will be followed by more,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel on Tuesday night.

Under the JCPOA, Iran was permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67%, a level that is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below the weapons-grade level of 90%. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran enriched up to 20%. Beginning this summer, the Islamic Republic began enriching uranium up to 4.5%, and also started accumulating more low-enriched uranium than was allowed under the deal — 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, compared to the JCPOA limit of 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

According to recent estimates from the Institute for Science and International Security, which is generally seen as hawkish on Iranian issues, if Tehran decided to completely abandon the JCPOA and go at full speed toward the production of an atomic weapon using its existing stores of low-enriched uranium, it would take between seven and 11 months for it to develop sufficient weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb, depending on which types of centrifuges it used in the process.

Screen capture from video showing Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, right, and three Iranian-produced uranium enrichment centrifuges in the background. (YouTube)

Andrea Stricker, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which is also seen as hawkish on Iran, told The Times of Israel that the resumption of uranium enrichment at Fordo with its 1,044 centrifuges, which are of a simpler and slower variety, potentially shortens this breakout time by several weeks.

It was not immediately clear how this timeline would change with Iran’s announcement that it would begin enriching uranium up to 5%.

Jason Brodsky, policy director for the bipartisan United Against a Nuclear Iran organization, said this should be seen as largely symbolic but highly provocative move, though one that is unlikely to significantly change the overall dynamic playing out between the United States and Iran.

“The Israelis are understandably very nervous,” he said.

US President Donald Trump signs a Presidential Memorandum withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, on May 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Since last May, when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions against Iran, Washington and Tehran have been locked in an escalating stalemate. Every few months, the White House imposes additional sanctions on Iran, and the Islamic Republic retaliates by steadily increasing its violations of the nuclear deal and also taking ever more aggressive military actions in the Persian Gulf, most recently with the bombing of a major Saudi Arabian oil facility in mid-September.

“[The Iranians] feel, probably, that the steps taken to date haven’t moved the needle in attracting sanctions relief, so they need to get more hardcore, while still keeping it reversible,” Brodsky told The Times of Israel over the phone.

“They’re trying to do something, to be provocative enough to attract sanctions relief, but not too provocative to attract a military strike or a full snapback of sanctions,” he said.

The Europeans

Since last May, the US and Iran have maintained relatively consistent strategies in their standoff, with Washington employing a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of regularly increased sanctions and bellicose rhetoric and Tehran responding with both violations of the terms of the JCPOA — surpassing limits on uranium quantities and enrichment levels — and shows of military force in the Persian Gulf, including shooting down an American drone and allegedly bombing a United Arab Emirates oil tanker with limpet mines.

So far the US has not retaliated militarily to any of Iran’s aggressive actions in the Middle East, something that deeply concerns Israel as it believes any American hesitancy and disengagement from the region emboldens Tehran.

Former US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, participates in the Meir Dagan Conference for Strategy and Defense, at the Netanya College, on March 21, 2018. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

“The US withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed maximum pressure. Iran is responding with aggression in the Gulf — to which the US hasn’t responded — and with creeping violations of the JCPOA, and with rejections of US and French offers to negotiate,” Shapiro said.

Brodsky agreed with this overall assessment of the dynamic.

“We are locked in this cycle,” he said.

In the middle of this brinkmanship between Iran and the US are the Europeans, who have been scrambling to keep the JCPOA alive.

After each violation of the accord by Tehran, members of the European Union — notably France and Germany — have faced the choice of stomaching the infraction or using the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanisms, under which fresh sanctions could be imposed on Iran. Use of this latter option by European countries would likely result in the complete abandonment of the JCPOA by Iran, according to many analysts’ assessments.

Europe should have activated dispute resolution mechanisms long before now to prevent these actions by Iran

With Iran’s latest moves on Wednesday, Europe will again have to decide how to respond.

Stricker said her group, which has long been critical of the JCPOA and hailed Trump’s decision to withdraw from it, believes the reactivation of a “formerly covert, heavily fortified facility that was once intended for weapons-grade uranium production,” on top of Iran’s prior violations of the accord, ought to prompt additional sanctions.

“Europe should have activated dispute resolution mechanisms long before now to prevent these actions by Iran,” she said.

“[The Iranians] don’t want to provoke snapbacks, but this is a pretty provocative action,” Stricker said.

Brodsky was more skeptical.

A satellite image from April 2, 2016, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

“[Fordo] is not Europe’s red line,” he said. “This is not likely to move the needle, from a European perspective.”

The UANI policy director said he believed Iran would have to significantly increase the level of enrichment before the Europeans would take action.

“I think 20% enrichment is their red line,” he said.

Shapiro, who was a significant supporter of the JCPOA, having served as US ambassador to Israel during its signing, was less inclined to speculate on what would prompt a European response.

“I don’t know what the trigger for Europe is to snap back sanctions,” he said. “They’re trying to find a way to preserve the structure of the deal.”

All eyes on 2020

This ongoing game of tit-for-tat between the US and Iran does seem to have a potential end date: November 3, 2020 — the American presidential elections.

For Iran, there is little incentive to enter negotiations with the current US administration until it knows if Trump is going to remain in office for an additional four years.

So for at least the next year, Tehran will likely maintain its strategy of provocative-but-not-too-provocative violations of the JCPOA, Brodsky said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to thousands of members of the Basij paramilitary organization in their gathering at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran, on October 4, 2018. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“Iran’s playing a long game here,” he said.

Shapiro added that European nations would also be inclined to wait until Americans decide who their next president will be before entering into serious negotiations to reach a long-term settlement.

“The Europeans are frustrated by the Trump approach,” he said.

Shapiro, who also served as senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the US National Security Council, said the White House doesn’t appear to be making great strides to any kind of resolution with Iran.

“There is no sign that the Trump administration has an off-ramp to this escalatory cycle,” he said.

Brodsky agreed that there was no sign of a solution in the offing.

In the short term, he said, the US could end a waiver it currently has in place that allows Russian, Chinese and European companies to operate out of Fordo in light of this latest violation of the JCPOA. Next month, when it assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council, the US could also try to call for more sanctions.

But overall, the Iran-US brinkmanship is likely to continue as is, according to Brodsky. “We’re going to continue to be at a stalemate,” he said.

Unless, or until, one of the sides changes the equation — either deliberately or through a miscalculation.

 

US races Russia for military positions in NE Syria, including new air bases – DEBKAfile

November 6, 2019

Source: US races Russia for military positions in NE Syria, including new air bases – DEBKAfile

Exclusive: A large influx of US troops is entering northeastern Syria this month to counter new Russian plans. This step follows several summersaults on Syria by President Donald Trump since his March 20 decision to withdraw the US from that country.

Thousands of words of condemnation landed on the White House on Oct. 13 when US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the decision to withdraw US forces from northeastern Syria. The administration was accused of deserting the US allied Kurds, the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces which defeated ISIS and opening the door for Iran to surge across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

However, thorough investigation by DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources have uncovered a totally different reality. While substantial US forces were indeed withdrawn from their Syrian bases to Iraq with masses of equipment, US troop reinforcements have been pouring in and continue to arrive in northeastern Syria. Not only were existing bases not abandoned, but new positions are being set up, including one or more new US air bases. US forces are moreover taking over Syria’s oil and gas fields after the SDF moved in.

Russian forces, whose objectives in Syria hitherto were confined to a naval base at Tartus and a big air base at Khmeimim  near Latakia, have suddenly decided to establish military and military footholds in the north as a counterweight to US military hubs in the Gulf and Iraq.