|Iran appears to have resumed uranium conversion: report||
TEHRAN – Iran appears to have resumed converting small amounts of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, diplomats say, a process which if expanded could buy time for negotiations between Washington and Tehran on its nuclear program, Reuters reported on Sunday.
The possibility of Iran converting enriched uranium into fuel - slowing a growth in stockpiles of material that could be used to make weapons - is one of the few ways in which the nuclear dispute could avoid hitting a crisis by the summer.
Tehran could otherwise have amassed sufficient stock by June to hit a “red line” set by Israel after which it has indicated it could attack to prevent Iran acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
Diplomats accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna told Reuters that Iran had apparently resumed converting into fuel small amounts of higher-grade enriched uranium though they had few details and one told Reuters that “very, very little had been done” so far.
A fuller picture is unlikely until a new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activity, due by late February. But the question is crucial in determining the size of its stockpiles and how close these are to Israel’s red line. “We will all be doing the mathematics soon,” said one diplomat.
In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not let Iran acquire enough material for a bomb; enriching uranium raises the less than one percent of fissile isotope U-235 found in mined metal to higher concentrations: about 4 percent for reactor fuel, up to 90 percent for a bomb.
While scientists differ about how much uranium is needed to have the ability quickly to make a bomb, analysts say the Israeli figure is believed to be 240 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent.
“Israeli officials, in private, widely use the 240kg figure,” said Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “The figure is so specific and so widely used that they must understand the implications of drawing this red line: that Iran is free to produce anything up to that amount, but that producing any more would force Israel to choose between humiliation or war.”
Iran averted a potential crisis last year by converting around 100 kg of its 20-percent enriched uranium into fuel.
Iran, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, denies seeking nuclear weapons, saying its aim is electric power and some higher-grade enriched uranium for medical purposes. It says non-signatory Israel, widely believed to have nuclear arms, is a threat.
According to the report, last year’s fuel conversion only slowed Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium and was stopped. As it continues to produce fresh supplies - diplomats believe it is adding 14 to 15 kg a month - stockpiles are rising quickly and they calculate Iran will hit the Israeli red line by May or June, unless it again expands fuel conversions or slows its rate of enrichment.
Negotiations with Tehran are currently run jointly by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany - known as the P5+1. A new round of talks is scheduled to be held in Kazakhstan on February 26.
Iran has shown no sign of slowing down the rate at which it enriches uranium to 20 percent in a plant at Fordo, diplomats say, though, perhaps significantly, it has not so far put into operation some new machinery - two cascades of inter-connected centrifuges which could have rapidly expanded that program.
An alternative scenario would be for Israel to blur the definition of its red line, given enough reassurance that its key ally the United States would be ready to make every effort to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute.
Having lost seats in a parliamentary election last month at which many voters indicated they did not fully share his anxiety about Iran, Netanyahu may also be ready to bide his time.
With U.S. President Barack Obama due to visit Israel in March on a trip Netanyahu says will focus on Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians, there are tentative signs Israel might give some space to the United States to pursue its diplomacy.
“It is notable that, recently, there have been no new assassinations of Iranian scientists, no prominent covert action or explosions, and broad Israeli restraint on statements of military intent,” said Joshi at RUSI in London, referring to a widely assumed covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.
“They are conceding U.S. leadership on this issue - whether by choice or American design.”
Former Israeli army intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said it was in Israel’s interest that Washington or the P5+1 reach an agreement with Iran. Writing in a report by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, he said, “Such a solution is preferable to a strategy with two exclusive alternatives of ‘an Iranian bomb’ or ‘the bombing of Iran’.”
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