“Just days before Iran enters its first nuclear talks with the West since the summer [Feb 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan], international nuclear inspectors said Thursday that the country has begun installing a new generation of equipment that should give it the ability to produce nuclear fuel much faster,” reports the New York Times. “The installation — at Iran’s main plant for uranium enrichment, located in the desert at Natanz — came after a half-decade of delays exacerbated by Western sanctions and sabotage. The new centrifuges are four to five times more powerful than an aging model that Iran has used for years. The advance has worried American, European and Israeli officials because it would make it easier for Iran to race toward making fuel for nuclear weapons, if it decided to do so.”
“Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, called the installation of the advanced machines ‘yet another provocative step’ and ‘a further escalation’ in Iran’s continuing violation of the United Nations demand that Tehran suspend its program of uranium enrichment,” notes the Times. “But even as Iran installed the more powerful equipment, evidence collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests that the Iranian authorities are deliberately slowing the accumulation of the medium-enriched uranium that could most quickly be converted to bomb fuel. According to a new report by the agency, much of that production has been diverted to make specialized fuel for a research reactor. The new report says Iran has diverted about 40 percent of its growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into an oxide form that can be used to make fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. So far, the report said, Iran used the collected material to produce at least five fuel assemblies.
“The result is that Iran has delayed the day when it could reach what Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, defined as his latest ‘red line’ beyond which Iran would not be allowed to pass: the accumulation of enough medium-enriched fuel to make a single nuclear weapon,” the Times continued. “At the time Mr. Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations last fall, it appeared that Iran would reach that point — about 240 kilograms (or 530 pounds) of uranium, enriched to 20 percent purity — by early this summer. If production remains at roughly the same rate, it appears that date will now slip into the fall, allowing more time for diplomatic progress. Mr. Netanyahu’s office said nothing about that apparent slowing when it released a statement quoting the prime minister as saying the findings were ‘a very grave report which proves that Iran is continuing to make rapid progress toward the red line.’ It added that ‘the first subject’ Mr. Netanyahu will discuss with President Obama during his planned visit to Israel next month is preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.”