Archive for February 24, 2021

Netanyahu: Israel will prevent a nuclear Iran whether or not a deal is in place

February 24, 2021

PM issues warning after Tehran begins restricting access to IAEA inspectors, in further breach of nuke deal; top Israeli officials hold policy meeting as US seeks to reenter accord

By TOI STAFFToday, 12:31 am  1

Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at a memorial ceremony in Tel Hai on February 23, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at a memorial ceremony in Tel Hai on February 23, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed Israel would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether a multilateral accord is in place to prevent Tehran from doing so.

The comments came hours after Iranian state TV reported that the Islamic Republic has officially begun restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

“On the eve of the Purim holiday, I say to those who seek to harm us — Iran and its proxies in the Middle East: 2,500 years ago, another Persian tyrant tried to destroy the Jewish people and just as he failed then – you too will fail,” Netanyahu said at a memorial ceremony in the northern town of Tel Hai, referencing the Purim story.

Addressing Iranian leaders, Netanyahu said Israel wouldn’t allow “your extremist and aggressive regime” to acquire nuclear arms.

“We did not make the generations-long journey for thousands of years back to the Land of Israel, to allow a delusional regime of the ayatollahs to end the story of the resurrection of the Jewish people,” he said.

“We do not place our trust in any agreement with an extremist regime like yours,” Netanyahu said, in remarks likely to make the Biden administration uneasy as it seeks to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018.

In this February 20, 2021, photo, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with the spokesman of Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi upon his arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The premier added: “We have already seen the nature of agreements with extremist regimes like yours, in the past century and also in this century, with the North Korean government. With an agreement or without an agreement, we will do whatever is necessary so you do not arm yourselves with nuclear weapons.”

On Monday, Netanyahu held the first major intra-ministerial meeting to discuss Israel’s policy vis-a-vis Iran since US President Joe Biden took office.

Among the senior officials who took part in the meeting were Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan.

Also participating were former national security council chairmen Yaakov Amidror and Yaakov Nagel, who Netanyahu is bringing on as external advisers on the issue, the Walla news site reported. Both of them are considered to have a hawkish stance on Iran more in line with Netanyahu’s.

Amidror was national security adviser while the agreement was being crafted and sparred with his American counterpart at the time, Susan Rice. Nagel, a nuclear expert, also served as an adviser during that period but stayed on longer, leading talks with the Trump administration to institute its “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.

Outgoing national security adviser Yaakov Amidror with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a farewell ceremony in Amidror’s honor, on November 3, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Also expected to serve as an external adviser on the matter is longtime Netanyahu aide and Erdan’s predecessor Ron Dermer, who is set to return to Israel in the coming weeks.

During Monday’s meeting, Kohavi and Cohen emphasized the importance of working to build goodwill with the new US administration by not sparring publicly with Washington over the Iran deal, Walla reported.

“We have not moved from our position against returning to the nuclear deal, but we want to work together with the administration and have a constructive discussion with it, not a confrontation,” a senior official said.

Additionally, Netanyahu plans to delegate talks on Iran to senior staff to prevent any personal tension between him and Biden, according to Reuters.

“The intent is to work everything out at that level, and to keep that communication channel open,” a senior official told Reuters. “Obviously this has benefits where there is a risk of a ‘cold shoulder’ at chief-executive level.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sits with former interim Israeli National Security Adviser Yaakov Nagel (R) at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 18, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Jerusalem is hoping to keep disputes with the new administration “under the radar” for the time being, Army Radio reported.

Also Tuesday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that senior Israeli and Saudi officials have recently held several phone calls to discuss the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

During the conversations, the Saudis also expressed concern over the new US administration and lamented its focus on human rights violations in the kingdom, the report said. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relative but have maintained clandestine ties. Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia in November for the first known meeting between Israeli and Saudi leaders.

IAEA deeply troubled by possible nuclear material at Iran site flagged by Israel

February 24, 2021

Sources say no indication Tehran facility was used for processing uranium, but may have been used for storing it as late as 2018, around when Netanyahu revealed site to UN

By AFP and TOI STAFFToday, 12:58 am  0

Illustrative: Iran's alleged atomic warehouse in Turquzabad, Tehran. (YouTube screenshot)

Illustrative: Iran’s alleged atomic warehouse in Turquzabad, Tehran. (YouTube screenshot)

The UN’s atomic watchdog said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” by the possible presence of nuclear material at an undeclared site in Iran that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared was a “secret atomic warehouse.”

“The agency is deeply concerned that undeclared nuclear material may have been present at this undeclared location and that such nuclear material remains unreported by Iran under its safeguards agreement,” a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency seen by AFP said.

“After 18 months, Iran has not provided the necessary, full and technically credible explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles,” the report said.

The site in question is in the Turquzabad district of Tehran, previously identified by Israel as an alleged site of secret atomic activity.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the site several times after Netanyahu identified it in a 2018 address to the UN General Assembly, took soil samples, and later definitively concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” there, Channel 13 news reported in 2019.

Sources told AFP Tuesday that there is no indication the site has been used for processing uranium, but that it could have been used for storing it as late as the end of 2018.

An image from a placard displayed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly showing a suspected “secret atomic warehouse” in the Turquzabad district of Tehran containing up to 300 tons of nuclear material. (GPO)

In a separate report also issued on Tuesday, the IAEA said that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is now more than 14 times over the limit set down in its 2015 deal with world powers.

The report said that, as of February 16, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 2,967.8 kilograms.

The limit in the 2015 deal was set at 300 kilos (660 pounds) of enriched uranium in a particular compound form, which is the equivalent of 202.8 kilos of uranium in non-compound form.

The latest IAEA reports came on the day that Iran began to restrict some site inspections by the IAEA in a further violation of the nuclear deal, which Tehran has steadily stepped away from since president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions.

As Iran plays chicken with Biden, it also moves closer to the bomb

February 24, 2021

Tehran appears to be jockeying for position ahead of nuke deal talks by blackballing inspectors and threatening to increase enrichment, but the posturing carries dangerous risks

By LAZAR BERMAN23 February 2021, 11:40 pm  1

Iranians drive past missiles on motorcycles during a rally marking the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, February 10, 2021. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iranians drive past missiles on motorcycles during a rally marking the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, February 10, 2021. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

With each step Iran takes to advance its nuclear program, a path out of the dangerous quagmire becomes even more murky.

On Tuesday, Tehran officially suspended its implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol, which gave nuclear inspectors increased access to Iran’s nuclear program, including the ability to carry out snap inspections at undeclared sites.

“As of midnight tonight, we will not have… commitments beyond safeguards. Necessary orders have been issued to the nuclear facilities,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s envoy to international organizations in Vienna.

A day earlier Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that Tehran could enrich uranium to 60% purity if it so desired. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the comment “sounds like a threat” and referred to it as “posturing.”

Analysts believe both the move to limit inspections and the enrichment threat are aimed at bolstering Iran’s negotiating position as it and US President Joe Biden’s administration maneuver ahead of expected talks aimed at bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear deal. But even if intended as bargaining chips, they carry the risk of moving Iran significantly closer to nuclear weapons capabilities.

“Biden is paying a game of chicken over who will reverse course first,” said Joab Rosenberg, former deputy head analyst in the Israel Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate. “There is an extremely unstable situation here, and a vector of deterioration and Iranian progress toward a bomb.”

The 2015 nuclear deal limits the Islamic Republic to 3.67% enrichment, a threshold it long ago passed as part of a series of escalating violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and six world powers, better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Uranium enriched to 60% is short of what Iran needs to make a nuclear weapon, but it would show that Tehran is going beyond the 20% to which it began enriching in January.Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, Jan. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

Levels above 20% are considered highly enriched uranium, or HEU, with few non-military uses. The jump from 20% to 90% enrichment, the level needed for most weapons-grade applications, is fairly simple, and any move to begin enriching above 20% is liable to raise major alarm bells.

In 2013, Iran’s parliament pushed for a bill to enrich to 60%, which it said was allowed for nuclear-powered submarines. At the time it claimed it was developing such naval vessels, but today is not known to have any in its fleet, raising suspicions that the plans had been a feint.

While Iran’s nuclear program progresses, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to keep an eye on Tehran’s nuclear program is moving in the other direction. On Sunday, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters after an emergency trip to Tehran that Iran’s government would begin offering “less access” to UN weapons inspectors — involving unspecified changes to the type of activity the watchdog can carry out.

“It is totally clear that from Tuesday, the oversight of Iran will be damaged,” said Rosenberg.In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The move to restrict inspectors was in line with a law passed by Iran’s parliament in December requiring the government to cease implementation of the Additional Protocol on Tuesday.

“This law exists, this law is going to be applied, which means that the Additional Protocol, much to my regret, is going to be suspended,” Grossi said, referring to a confidential inspections agreement between Tehran and the IAEA reached as part of the nuclear deal.

Tehran has been gradually suspending its compliance with most of the limits set by the agreement in response to Washington’s abandonment of the nuclear deal, which provided sanctions relief in exchange for enrichment restrictions, and the failure of other parties to the deal to make up for the reimposed US penalties.

In July 2019, Iran announced it had exceeded the 300 kilogram limit of its 3.67% low-enriched uranium stockpile. A week later it began enriching uranium to 4.5% at the Natanz plant.

In September of that year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that “all of the commitments for research and development under the JCPOA will be completely removed by Friday.” The IAEA verified in November that Iran’s heavy water stockpile had exceeded the JCPOA’s 130 metric ton limit.

On January 5, 2020, Iran announced its fifth planned violation, forgoing any limits on the number of centrifuges it operates.

In January 2021, Tehran revealed that it was taking steps to produce uranium metal, days after it resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity at the underground Fordo facility.

According to a report Friday, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors last summer found uranium particles at two Iranian nuclear sites to which Iran tried to block access.Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi, center left, speaks with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, before a meeting in Tehran, Iran, August 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iranian authorities had stonewalled the inspectors from reaching the sites for seven months before the inspection, and Iranian officials have failed to explain the presence of the uranium, the Reuters news agency reported, citing diplomats familiar with the UN agency’s work.

The inspections took place in August and September of 2020, the report said. The IAEA keeps its findings secret and only shared the details of the find with a few countries.

The Wall Street Journal reported the suspicious findings earlier this month, without identifying the material.

IAEA chief Grossi tried to put Monday’s agreement on inspections in a positive light, stressing that monitoring would continue in a “satisfactory” manner, pointing to a three-month “technical understanding” reached to ensure some type of inspections would continue.IAEA Director Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks to the media after returning from Iran, at Vienna International Airport, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (AP/Ronald Zak)

“My hope, the hope of the IAEA, has been to stabilize a situation that was very unstable. And I think this technical understanding does it, so that other political consultations at other levels can take place,” Grossi told reporters.

But the IAEA has refused to detail what the deal allows and critics fear that it will still give Iran more leeway to make progress in its nuclear program while dictating what kind of access international inspectors will have.

“Based on Grossi’s evasiveness, it doesn’t seem like he achieved much in this agreement,” said Rosenberg.File: Fighters with Iran-backed militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, wave Iraqi flags while mourners and family members prepare to bury the body of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a deputy commander of the militias who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq, during his funeral procession in Najaf, Iraq, January 8, 2020. (Anmar Khalil/AP)

He noted the possibility that Iran actually made more significant concessions but that Grossi agreed not to go into detail so as not to arouse criticism of the government from Iran’s parliament, which nonetheless termed the agreement “illegal.”

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, assailed the lack of demands for clarity from the White House.

“The US should not accept that the terms of this agreement are secret,” he said.

While the administration of former US president Donald Trump had pursued a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, Biden has signaled a more conciliatory approach, albeit while leaving the reimposed sanctions in place. On Friday, Biden said the US was “prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program.”

Goldberg said the Iranians had been testing their boundaries by violating the nuclear deal, and were now seeing how far they could push the Biden administration. He noted an attack by Iranian-backed militias on Erbil in northern Iraq, in which a foreign contractor was killed and an American service member was injured, which carried “no consequences for Iran.”

“Next they will test existing sanctions and whether they will be enforced,” Goldberg predicted. “Unenforced sanctions are the same as lifting sanctions.”