US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

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The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.” Continue reading

Iran FM: Iran, world powers seek ‘exit’ from nuclear stalemate

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday he is optimistic about upcoming Iran nuclear talks and that both sides seek to move past the current diplomatic impasse.

“Both sides”—Iran and the P5+1—“have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said in an interview published Monday (Dec 17) by the Iran Student News Agency (ISNA), first reported in English by Reuters.

“Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more,” Salehi continued. “They know very well Iran will not give up its legitimate right.”

Iran’s top diplomat said he didn’t know when the next round of talks will be held.

A spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday they had no new word from Iran on when they would meet.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid spoke with her Iranian counterpart Dr. Ali Bagheri last week (Dec 12) to propose possible meeting dates as early as this week. But diplomats said they expected a meeting is more likely to materialize in January.

Salehi told ISNA he could not comment on the P5+1 package Iran had received.

Western diplomats have indicated that the proposal has been updated from the “stop, ship and shut” package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, but have provided no details on the changes.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” a senior US official was cited by the Washington Post Friday.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” the official said. Continue reading