(USA TODAY) Iran is moving ahead with a nuclear program that U.S. officials said would be frozen, and it is now clear the USA and other world powers are willing to accept an Iranian enrichment program that Iran refuses to abandon, say analysts.
Iran has continued research and development on new, far more efficient machines for producing uranium fuel that could power reactors or bombs, and its stockpile of low enriched uranium has actually grown, according to a report by Institute for Science and International Security.
The Iranian regime has also trumpeted recent tests of new ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver a future warhead while its pariah economy has begun a modest recovery.
Analysts watching the movements say the U.S. easing of economic sanctions against Iran to induce it to make compromises on a long-term nuclear agreement may not be having the desired effect.
"If Iranians believe they can erode the sanctions without making additional nuclear concessions, then the improvement in the economy makes a comprehensive deal less likely," said Gary Samore, a former principal arms control adviser to President Obama.
"The Iranians are advancing their nuclear program, moving ahead on the program in areas not covered" by the interim agreement with world powers in November, says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has backed a tough new sanctions bill pending in the U.S. Senate. "The likelihood of a comprehensive deal on acceptable terms diminishes."
Wendy Sherman, the USA's chief negotiator with Iran, said during a visit to Israel last weekend that world powers are willing to accept an Iranian uranium enrichment program for producing nuclear fuel that is "limited, discreet, constrained, monitored and verified." Such constraints would prevent Iran from secretly producing enough fuel for a bomb, Sherman said.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has threatened military action if necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, said any agreement that allows Iran to keep the machinery to make nuclear fuel would be a mistake.
He says such a deal would leave a dangerous technology in the hands of a regime whose leaders have said repeatedly that Israel must be eliminated. And if Iran wants nuclear fuel for a peaceful program it can have it, he points out.
"Every single leader that I've talked to in the Middle East agrees with that position, whether they say so publicly or not," Netanyahu said. "Why? Because if Iran really wants just civilian nuclear energy, then they don't need any enrichment. They don't need centrifuges."
Nations that are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty like Iran are provided enriched uranium from other countries to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The exporters agree to keep the United Nations informed about the amount they send to others.
Iran is in violation of the treaty for enriching its own uranium without proper oversight of its end use, according to the United Nations Security Council. The council has passed a number of resolutions demanding Iran halt the enrichment.
The World Nuclear Association says there are 30 countries that have nuclear power plants. The majority of those countries, Canada and Mexico among them, are provided fuel by outside sources. Eleven of those countries have the ability to make their own fuel.
In recent weeks Iranian officials have said they will not dismantle elements of their nuclear program of concern to the West, including centrifuges, enrichment facilities and a heavy water reactor under construction that, once operational, would produce plutonium that could fuel a bomb with further processing. Among the concerns identified by Institute for Science and International Security and other sources:
• Iran continues research and development work at its Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, and has installed casing for a new eighth-generation centrifuge. Aliakbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, has said the new design is 15 times more powerful than the IR-1 centrifuge, according to Iran's state broadcaster IRIB.
• The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, reported no new progress on addressing its questions related to past military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. It has yet to gain access to Parchin, a military site where the IAEA seeks to investigate concentric explosive devices that could be used to demolish bridges or detonate a nuclear warhead.
Satellite imagery shows "what appears to be possible building material and debris" at Parchin, which had previously been paved over, making inspections there more difficult, the IAEA said.
• Iran tested two new ballistic missiles this month, showing Iran is moving forward on delivery systems that could be used for a future warhead.
• And various economic reports show that sanctions relief provided in the interim deal has produced a still-fragile economic recovery, with Iranian GDP shifting from a negative 1.5% growth in 2013 to a projected positive growth of 1.5% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Iran received $7 billion in sanctions relief as part of an interim six-month deal agreed to in November that requires it to limit the growth of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, convert or dilute its uranium that is close to bomb-grade, and not install any new machines for producing uranium fuel.
Reuters reported last month that Russia and Iran were negotiating an $18 billion-a-year deal for Iran to pay in oil for Russian military gear and energy technology. The economic developments
"There've been trade delegations going into Iran with major European businesses attending these delegations," he said.
Jofi Joseph, former director for non-proliferation in President Obama's White House National Security Council, said Iran is trying to enhance its leverage in future negotiations by continuing expanding a program that may not be as far along as some say.
"Historically, Iran has experienced tremendous problems in seeking to ramp up operation of new centrifuge models once they enter full scale enrichment production, and it often takes months, if not years, to iron out all the kinks," Joseph said.
A greater concern, he says, would be if the Iranian economy did not begin to recover despite the sanctions easing.
"If we are to successfully persuade the Iranian leadership that a final agreement on its nuclear program is in its ultimate interests, we need to demonstrate that diplomacy represents a win-win proposition for all side," he said.
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