IAEA warns of improved Iran nuclear program capability; Israel strike speculation buils

The IAEA has warned that Iran’s government has the necessary expertise and materials needed to build a nuclear weapon after receiving critical support from foreign scientists over recent years. As Joby Warrick reported :

Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the Iranian government continues to support the right to self-determination for Palestine. Ahmadinejad also said Iran is talking to Russia about building additional nuclear power reactors. (Sept. 23)

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the Iranian government continues to support the right to self-determination for Palestine. Ahmadinejad also said Iran is talking to Russia about building additional nuclear power reactors. (Sept. 23)

Documents and other records provide new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the officials and experts said. Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of nuclear capability, they added.

The officials, citing secret intelligence provided over several years to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the records reinforce concerns that Iran continued to conduct weapons-related research after 2003 — when, U.S. intelligence agencies believe, Iranian leaders halted such experiments in response to international and domestic pressures.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog is due to release a report this week laying out its findings on Iran’s efforts to obtain sensitive nuclear technology. Fears that Iran could quickly build an atomic bomb if it chooses to has fueled anti-Iran rhetoric and new threats of military strikes. Some U.S. arms-control groups have cautioned against what they fear could be an overreaction to the report, saying there is still time to persuade Iran to change its behavior.

Iranian officials expressed indifference about the report.

“Let them publish and see what happens,” said Iran’s foreign minister and former nuclear top official, Ali Akbar Salehi, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported Saturday.

Salehi said that the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program is “100 percent political” and that the IAEA is “under pressure from foreign powers.”

Concern over progress in Iran’s nuclear weapons program links Israel and the Gulf Arab states, even as their disagreement over the Palestinians continues. As AP explained:

Among the many alliances of convenience in the Middle East, one is so unusual that the partners can barely hint about it publicly: Israel and the Gulf Arab states linked by shared fears over Iran’s nuclear program.

While their deeper disputes on the Palestinians effectively block any strategic breakthroughs, the recent warnings from Israel and the West about military options against Iran invariably draw in the Gulf and its rare meeting of minds with Jerusalem.

The Gulf states — a cornerstone for U.S. diplomatic and military pressure on Iran — are indispensable parts of any effort to confront Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. And even Israel, which has no direct diplomatic outreach to the Gulf, is likely brought into the Gulf-centric policymaking with U.S. envoys acting as go-betweens, experts say.

“I would be surprised if there is no knowledge about the Saudi positions (in Israel) or knowledge in Saudi of the Israeli positions,” said David Menashri, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

It’s part of a complicated mix of mutual worries and divergent risks — the Gulf, unlike Israel, has critical commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran — that puts Washington in the middle as the common ally and chief Western architect of pressure tactics on Iran.

The next moves are expected after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency releases an intelligence report Tuesday to its 35 board members.

Last week speculation reached a fever pitch that Israel was preparing to launch a strike at Iran designed to set back or destroy its burgeoning nuclear capability. As Joel Greenberg reported :

Days of feverish media reports about possible Israeli plans to strike Iran, coupled with a long-range missile test, publicized air force drills abroad and a civil defense exercise Thursday, have heightened speculation here about the likelihood of military action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Taken separately, none of the recent military actions is novel or unprecedented. But the combination of events, along with renewed warnings by Israeli leaders this week about the Iranian threat, have intensified the media focus on Israel’s military option, leading some cabinet ministers to complain that sensitive security matters were being compromised.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is slated to publish a report next week on Iran’s nuclear program, and the developments in Israel have been interpreted by some commentators as part of an orchestrated effort to prod Western nations into stiffening their sanctions on Tehran.

Israel’s security chiefs are reported to oppose an attack, concerned about possible retaliation by Iran and Iranian-backed militants on Israel’s northern and southern borders.

But the idea of high-level support for such action was catapulted into the headlines after the well-connected columnist Nahum Barnea asked in an article in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper last Friday whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had decided between them to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Barnea wrote that the question is preoccupying Israeli security and government officials, as well as foreign governments.

The Haaretz newspaper reported Wednesday that Netanyahu and Barak were working to mobilize support in the Israeli cabinet for a military strike and had won over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, although a majority of senior ministers opposed the move.

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