Archive for April 22, 2021

Growing suspicions, frustration between US and Israel over Iran deal — report

April 22, 2021

Media reports describe feelings of lack of trust and transparency as Washington moves to reenter pact Israel despises; Jerusalem said still hoping to bridge gaps

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

As international negotiations progress on restoring the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program, suspicion is growing between Israel and the US as the Biden administration looks to rejoin the accord, according to a report Wednesday.

Officials told Axios that National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat had raised Israeli worry with American officials that Jerusalem’s concerns were not being given proper consideration as Washington attempts to reenter the deal. Israeli officials said the Americans countered that Israel was not sufficiently heeding the administration’s request for “no surprises” from either side concerning Iran policy.

The report described growing frustration on both sides over feelings of lack of trust and insufficient transparency.

Despite the disagreements between the sides, an Israeli official told the Walla news site that Israel was still holding out hope it could influence the US position.

“We don’t think everything is lost and as long as we have the opportunity to voice our stance, we are going to try in the hope that we’ll succeed,” the unnamed official said.

The comments came before Israeli security chiefs fly to Washington next week for high-level talks on Iran.

According to Walla, they will meet Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to coordinate their discussions with their American counterparts.

Among the officials set to travel to the US are Ben-Shabbat, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Military Intelligence commander Tamir Hayman.

Noting that most talks with the new administration have been held by phone or video conference, the unnamed official told Walla that next week’s face-to-face meetings would illustrate to Israel how large the gap is with the US concerning policy toward Iran.

The nations set up a strategic group, which last convened on April 13, to coordinate their efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. The group is led by Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Ben-Shabbat.

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (left), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Two Israeli officials familiar with those meetings told Walla that they exposed the gaps between the countries on how best to address Iran’s nuclear program.

The officials also said that it was the US that was not being transparent about the offers so far made to Iran, a claim rejected by a senior administration official.

The report came a day after Kan news said Israel was lobbying the US to push for improved international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, having concluded there will not be significant changes to the treaty but nonetheless seeking to slightly improve the terms of the pact.

Israel was said to have conceded that the deal will be renewed without addressing its concerns about Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for terror groups.

A separate report this week said Israeli officials have expressed concern that Biden will rush to rejoin the nuclear deal, arguing that Washington’s negotiating power is compromised by its eagerness to clinch a pact.

In this September 24, 2017 file photo, surface-to-surface missiles and a portrait of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are displayed by the Revolutionary Guard. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

As the efforts to restore the nuclear pact continued, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that 60-70 percent of issues had been resolved. A spokesman for the US State Department, however, said that while the talks were positive, “we have more road ahead of us than in the rearview mirror.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it will return to the nuclear deal if Iran first returns to compliance. Iran has taken a hardline approach, demanding the US lift all sanctions against it first, putting the two sides at a stalemate.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem at odds with the new White House administration.

Critics have long said that the deal fails to address Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can reach Israel and parts of Europe and its constant funding and support of terror groups like Hezbollah.

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UN atomic agency: Iran has installed additional advanced centrifuges at Natanz

April 22, 2021

IAEA records 8 new cascades at underground nuclear site hit in blast blamed on Israel; says Islamic Republic planning to add more

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidential office on Saturday, April 10, shows a video conference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant (Iranian Presidency/AFP)

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidential office on Saturday, April 10, shows a video conference screen of an engineer inside Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant (Iranian Presidency/AFP)

The UN atomic agency on Wednesday said Iran has installed additional advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant, the site of a recent blast blamed on Israel.

According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, seen by Reuters, Iran added two more cascades of IR-4 centrifuges and six clusters of IR-2m at its  underground facility. The IAEA also confirmed that some of the centrifuges were in use and said the Islamic Republic plans to install another four cascades of the IR-4 at Natanz.

“On 21 April 2021, the Agency verified at FEP that: … six cascades of up to 1,044 IR-2m centrifuges; and two cascades of up to 348 IR-4 centrifuges… were installed, of which a number were being used,” the report said.

On April 10, Iran announced that it started up far more advanced IR-6 and IR-5 centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly, in a new breach of its undertakings under the 2015 nuclear agreement. It also said it has began mechanical tests on an even faster nuclear centrifuge: The output of Iran’s IR-9 centrifuge, when operational, would be 50 times quicker than the first Iranian centrifuge, the IR-1. Iran’s nuclear program is also developing IR-8 centrifuges.

Early the next morning, the site was hit in the blast that was declared by Iran to be Israeli sabotage. The explosion is said to have caused considerable damage to the Natanz plant, including its various uranium-enriching centrifuges.

This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

In response to the attack, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60 percent purity at the site — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons-grade. The UN atomic agency confirmed the enrichment, saying it was being done in an above-ground facility at Natanz.

The head of the country’s atomic agency said Tuesday that power has been restored at Natanz and uranium enrichment activities there have been renewed. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was cited by the official IRNA news agency as saying that “the cables damaged in the accident were speedily replaced and… the main power supply to the Natanz enrichment facility [is] now connected to the grid.”

Salehi told lawmakers during a parliamentary committee meeting that “thanks to the timely measures taken, enrichment in Natanz never stopped, even when the main power cable was cut,” according to the report.

He also reportedly said that Iran’s enemies, among them Israel, have repeatedly attempted to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, but claimed all the plots were foiled.

Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the April 11 attack at Natanz.

The report did not include any images of the enrichment activities that Salehi said had resumed.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AFP)

His comments came as a New York Times report said Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at Natanz has slowed down due to increased security measures implemented following the recent blast.

Despite the reported damage, Iranian state TV aired footage earlier this week from what it said were regular operations at Natanz. The spot included a short interview with an unnamed worker at the site who said that the staff was working around the clock to resume uranium enrichment.

Israeli and American media have reported that a 150-kilogram bomb took out Natanz’s main and backup power supplies and caused damage setting back the enrichment process by months.

In this image made from April 17, 2021 video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP, File)

A senior Iranian official said last Tuesday that the blast destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Alireza Zakani, the hardline head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

The blast was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding aboveground workshops and underground enrichment halls, but Iranian officials later began calling it an attack.

Last Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup. “From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, told Iranian state television.

“They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. The official also noted that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

A passport-style photo published by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi, 43, whom Tehran says was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (video screenshot)

On Saturday, Iran state television named 43-year-old Reza Karimi as a suspect in last week’s attack, saying he had since fled the country. The report showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.

The Iranian foreign ministry accused Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources. The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement. The talks are focused on bringing the US back into the accord after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.