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Iran Ups Nuke Ante Amid Vienna Talks   12/02 06:12

   

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- After a monthslong hiatus, Iran has 
returned to negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving its cratered nuclear deal 
with world powers. But Tehran isn't slowing down the advances in its atomic 
program, further raising the stakes in talks crucial to cooling years of 
tensions boiling in the wider Mideast.

   The case in point? Iran's underground nuclear facility in Fordo.

   The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with 
monitoring the Islamic Republic's program, acknowledged Wednesday that Iran 
began feeding a cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges with uranium there. 
The agency said Iran plans to enrich uranium there up to 20% purity -- a short, 
technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

   Tehran's diplomatic mission to Vienna sought to downplay the acknowledgement 
on Twitter as "an ordinary update in line with regular verification in Iran." 
However, even in clinical language the announcement offers a stark contrast to 
what existed under the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment 
of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

   The deal halted all enrichment at Fordo, which sits under a mountain near 
the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran. 
The accord also called for Fordo to become a research-and-development facility.

   The deal focused on Fordo because the site long has been a major point of 
contention for the West. It is about the size of a football field, large enough 
to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. 
officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site 
publicly in 2009.

   Then-President Barack Obama, alongside France's president and Britain's 
prime minister, dramatically announced to the world Iran had built the site 
after years of tensions over Tehran's program.

   "As the international community knows, this is not the first time that Iran 
has concealed information about its nuclear program," Obama said at the time.

   Iran asserted Fordo's secret construction came as part of its "sovereign 
right of safeguarding ... sensitive nuclear facilities through various means" 
as it faced the threat of military attack. But burying the facility under some 
80 meters (260 feet) of dirt and rock while not informing international 
inspectors as required only heightened Western concerns. U.S. intelligence 
agencies and international inspectors believe Iran had an organized nuclear 
weapons program until 2003.

   Now, just days into the new negotiations in Vienna, Iran has acknowledged 
the higher enrichment there with advanced centrifuges also barred by the 
accord. It may be another hard-line negotiation tactic like the others embraced 
by the diplomatic team under new President Ebrahim Raisi.

   Raisi, a protg of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said he wants 
to see the economic sanctions pummeling Iran's economy lifted.

   But pressing too many demands too fast while advancing Iran's nuclear 
program may alienate Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, the other 
parties to the accord. Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported Thursday that 
Iranian negotiators also handed over two new documents of demands.

   It also makes re-entering the deal that much more politically complicated 
for President Joe Biden. His negotiators remain outside of the room where the 
talks are going on due to his predecessor Donald Trump unilaterally withdrawing 
from the deal in 2018, sparking years of wider tensions in the Mideast that 
continue today.

   A breakdown in the talks or further advances by Iran raise regional risks. 
Already, Tehran finds itself locked in a wider shadow war with Israel. Iranian 
officials blame Israel for attacks on its Natanz nuclear site, as well as the 
gunning down of a scientist identified as the founder of its military nuclear 
program.

   Some of those attacks came under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 
who long targeted Iran. Israel's new premier, Naftali Bennett, has kept up that 
pressure. Bennett spoke Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken 
and described Iran as carrying out "nuclear blackmail as a negotiation tactic" 
with its enrichment at Fordo, according to a statement from his office.

   An Israeli official said the country assesses that Iran could produce enough 
90%-enriched uranium for a single nuclear bomb within a month. Even if Iran had 
enough weapons-grade material, it would need to choose to construct a bomb 
itself -- still a complicated engineering feat. Tehran insists its program is 
peaceful.

   The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not 
authorized to comment publicly, said that Israel still considers a military 
strike against Iran to be a viable option and is preparing for all scenarios.

   Israeli leaders have said they would still prefer a diplomatic solution 
reaching a "longer, stronger" deal that includes Iran's missile program and its 
support of regional militias. But they insist any diplomacy must be accompanied 
by a credible military threat.

   Israel hasn't shied in the past from conducting airstrikes to halt its 
neighbor's nuclear ambitions, whether in Iraq in 1981 or Syria in 2007. It 
remains unclear, however, what that line in Iran would be for Tel Aviv.

   What also remains unclear is how Israel could strike a target as deep as 
Fordo. After the facility's discovery, the U.S. rushed to finalize its Massive 
Ordnance Penetrator -- a 13,600-kilogram (30,000-pound) bomb able to penetrate 
deep into the ground before exploding. That bomb remains in American hands, 
however, and it's unlikely Israeli air force fighters could even carry it given 
its mammoth size.

   But, if Iran is right, Israel was able not once but twice in a year to cause 
explosions at its Natanz nuclear site. One such blast targeted Natanz's 
underground enrichment halls as well. An Israeli television program that 
featured outgoing Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen in June suggested spies 
somehow planted explosives under the halls' marble flooring during construction.

 
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