Iran Update: Number 155

  • Uranium Enrichment Operations Commence at Iran’s Fordow Facility
  • Iran Responds Positively to Offer for New Talks with P5+1; Special IAEA visit to Tehran for Talks possible at the end of January
  • E.U. Plans Phased-In Oil Embargo on Iran
  • U.S. Seeks Cooperation from Asian Nations on New Sanctions
  • Iranian Nuclear Expert Killed in Tehran
  • U.S. Issues Warnings to Iran Over Threats to Close the Strait of Hormuz
  • Ahmadinejad visits Latin America

Uranium Enrichment Operations Commence at Iran’s Fordow Facility

On January 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed reports that Iran has begun enriching uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom. This was not an unexpected development, as Iran had announced months ago it would soon commence these operations at Fordow and begin moving nuclear materials to the site.

The IAEA inspection revealed that two linked cascades containing 348 centrifuges were operating, while two other cascades were still being assembled. Reportedly, the centrifuges appeared to be the same standard models as those in use at Iran’s central enrichment facility at Natanz and not more advanced prototype versions that had been previously displayed by Iranian officials. The IAEA also confirmed that all nuclear activities at the facility were under its surveillance. Iran has said that it must enrich uranium up to the 20 percent level for the production of medical isotopes, and denies allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

In a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council on January 11, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany all condemned Iran’s move to begin enriching uranium at Fordow. However, further U.N. sanctions on Iran are highly unlikely, given the opposition of permanent Security Council members China and Russia. Prior to the meeting, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing “regret and worry” over Iran’s decision but urged all parties to seek a diplomatic solution. In a statement to Iran’s ISNA news agency, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, claimed that Western reaction had “political purposes.”

Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s nuclear program was warning world powers that the facility is safe from foreign attacks.  The Fordow facility is in a hardened tunnel, built underneath a mountain, and heavily defended by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and air defense systems.

Iran Responds Positively to Offer for New Talks with P5+1; Special IAEA visit to Tehran for Talks possible at the end of January

In a visit to Turkey, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani stated that Iran was willing to return to the table for a meeting with the P5+1 group (five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). Formal discussions between Iran and the P5+1 have been on hold since a meeting in Istanbul a year ago.

Larijani said that “The negotiations can yield results if they are serious and not a game.” This statement reiterated the message conveyed recently by Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, who said Iran had told the P5+1 that it was ready to resume discussions. However, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has stated that she has not yet received an official reply to a letter sent to Iran inviting them to return to negotiations.

In addition, a senior team from the IAEA is planning to visit Tehran around January 28 for discussions regarding the allegations of a possible military dimension in Iran’s nuclear program. These allegations were covered in greater detail than usual in the Agency’s last Safeguard’s report (see Iran Update 154).

E.U. Plans Phased-In Oil Embargo on Iran

On January 23, foreign ministers from the 27 European Union member states will meet in Brussels to decide on implementing a phased-in oil embargo on Iran. In the lead up to the meeting, reports indicate EU member states are actively planning how to implement a phased-in approach, in order to avoid a spike in international oil prices and prevent damaging EU economies already stressed by the European debt crisis. Greece, Italy, and Spain, the highest consumers of Iranian oil within the EU, have been pushing for key exemptions on existing contracts with Iran. In 2010, those three nations accounted for 68.5 percent of EU imports of Iranian oil. The embargo will also likely ban Iranian petrochemical products after three months.

The European bloc is reportedly considering a six-month delay on implementation of the embargo, in order to allow for the expiration of existing oil contracts with Iran and to give Italy, Greece, and Spain time to locate alternative sources of supply for their oil needs. The EU is also considering exempting Italy, since Italy receives 13% of its oil from Iran and crude needs to be sold to pay off debts owed to Italy’s largest oil company, Eni SpA (ENI).

Senior Iranian officials responded severely to reports of the proposed European embargo. Economic minister Shamseddin Hosseini labeled the measure as “an economic war,” while Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that “Iran, with divine assistance, has always been able to counter such hostile actions, and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions.”

U.S. Seeks Cooperation from Asian Nations on New Sanctions

On December 31, President Barack Obama signed into law new U.S. economic sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran, which bars access to the U.S. financial system for foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct transactions with the bank. Since Iran’s Central Bank handles foreign sales of petroleum, the U.S. sanctions are a severe measure of economic pressure intended to reduce Iran’s oil sales and drastically cut the Iranian government’s major source of revenue. Oil sales account for over 60 percent of Iran’s total budget.

As part of this effort, the United States is pressuring Asian importers to reduce their reliance on Iranian oil. On a trip to China and Japan, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner held discussions with top officials in an attempt to persuade them to cooperate with the new U.S. sanctions effort. Geithner urged officials to cut their nation’s purchases of Iranian oil and locate alternative sources of supply, as part of the U.S. goal of substantially reducing Iran’s oil revenues. Treasury officials also visited the Philippines and Thailand to explain the new sanctions and urge officials there to reduce oil transactions with Iran.

U.S. officials view China’s cooperation on U.S. sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran as a key component in the effort to exert economic pressure on the Iranian government, as China is Iran’s largest customer for crude oil. However, Geithner met with little success in Beijing, as the Chinese leadership declined to offer support for U.S. efforts.  Prior to Geithner’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Minister had already publicly criticized the U.S. sanctions effort. China has repeatedly indicated that it prefers to act through multilateral forums such as the United Nations. On January 12, the United States imposed sanctions on China’s state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong, Corp, for its sale of refined petroleum products to Iran. Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Weimin said the measure was “unreasonable” and “does not conform to the spirit or content of the U.N. Security Council resolutions about the Iran nuclear issue.”

During Geithner’s visit to Tokyo, Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi signaled willingness to cooperate with the U.S. sanctions effort by pledging to “take action concretely” to cut back its consumption of Iranian oil. Japan imports 10 percent of its oil from Iran. However, the next day, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Azumi’s comments were a personal opinion, not government policy, and that the Japanese government had yet to decide on whether or not to reduce oil imports from Iran.

U.S. officials are also set to visit South Korea the week of January 16 in order to discuss the new sanctions on Iran and similarly urge officials there to reduce their reliance on Iranian oil. South Korea imports about 10 percent of its oil from Iran. South Korean officials have also stated that they have not yet made a decision about reducing imports of Iranian oil.

Iranian Nuclear Expert Killed in Tehran

Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the 32-year old deputy director of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and head of its procurement department, was killed in Tehran on January 11. Two men riding a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to Roshan’s car, which detonated seconds later, killing him as well as his driver. The method was very similar to past killings of Iranian scientists involved in the country’s nuclear program during the past two years. When he was killed, Roshan was en route to a ceremony marking the second anniversary of the murder of one of his former colleagues, nuclear physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who had been killed by a remotely-detonated explosive device planted outside of his home.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei labeled Roshan’s killing as a “cowardly” act and accused the United States and Israel of involvement. He also stated that the assailants and those who supported the attack would be punished. Officials from the Obama Administration have condemned the attack and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied any U.S. involvement. Israeli officials have not confirmed or denied involvement. Various Iranian press outlets have called for retaliatory measures in response to the attack. Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of the conservative Iranian daily Kayhan, urged that Iran should respond by attacking Israeli officials.

U.S. Issues Warnings to Iran Over Threats to Close the Strait of Hormuz

The comments by Admiral Habibollah Sayari, Iran’s chief naval officer, on Press TV that Iran had the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz has triggered stark warnings from U.S. officials that such an action would represent a “red line” that would provoke a U.S. response. Senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have publicly stated that the United States would not allow Iran to close the strait and would use force to stop Iran from doing so. Reportedly, the United States has also communicated a private warning to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei through a back channel, and Iran confirmed that it had received a letter about the Strait of Hormuz from the United States, but did not disclose the specific content.

Ahmadinejad Visits Latin America

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a five-day visit to Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua to rally support from countries challenging the established international order. The visit also underlined Iran’s efforts to circumvent economic sanctions imposed by the United States, in particular through exploiting its close ties with Venezuela. The outcome of the trip has been questioned, however, given that the level of trade at present amounts to little and that Brazil – a key negotiator with Iran in recent years – was excluded in Ahmadinejad’s visit.

-Brett DuBois, with contributions from Nikita Shah, BASIC

Stories and Links

•    India to persist with crude import from Iran
Sachin Parashar, The Times of India, January 18, 2012

•    Iran tells Gulf to avoid adventurers
Reuters via Hurriyet Daily News, January 16, 2012

•    Military Drill With the U.S. Is Postponed, Israeli Says
Isabel Kershner, The New York Times, January 16, 2012

•    South Korea, U.S. to fine tune Iran sanctions, crude oil buy
Song Sang-ho, The Korea Herald, January 16, 2012

•    China angry at US sanctions on oil firm Zhuhai Zhenrong
BBC News, January 15, 2012

•    Geithner Gets Japan Backing on Iran Oil After Snub From China
Toru Fujioka and Aki Ito, Bloomberg, January 15, 2012

•    Iran sends rare letter to U.S. over killed scientist
Parisa Hafezi, Reuters via Yahoo! News, January 14, 2012

•    EU Iran Oil Embargo Over Nuclear Work Said Likely to Be Delayed Six Months
Thomas Penny and Ewa Krukowska, Bloomberg, January 13, 2012

•    Japan Expresses New Caution About Cutting Iran Oil Imports
Steve Herman, VOA News, January 13, 2012

•    Anti-US Chants as Slain Iran Nuclear Expert Buried
Associated Press via NPR, January 13, 2012

•    Senior U.N. team to visit Iran later this month
Reuters, January 12, 2012

•    U.S. Sends Top Iranian Leader a Warning on Strait Threat
Elisabeth Blumiller, Eric Schmitt, and Thom Shanker, The New York Times, January 12, 2012

•    Japan vows “concrete” steps to cut Iran oil reliance
Reuters via The Guardian, January 12, 2012

•    Iran nuclear: Ali Larijani accepts Turkey talks offer
BBC News, January 12, 2012

•    Iran ‘open to nuclear talks’
Al-Jazeera, January 12, 2012

•    Iran hard-line newspaper calls for retaliation against Israel over killing of nuclear expert
Associated Press via Washington Post, January 12, 2012

•    EU, U.S. slam Iran nuclear work at U.N. council meeting
Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, January 11, 2012

•    National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012

•    Geithner Presses Beijing on Iran, currency; no sign of Chinese support for oil sanctions
Associated Press via Washington Post, January 11, 2012

•    Russia ‘worried’ over Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions
David Blair, The Telegraph, January 10, 2012

•    U.N. confirms Iran enriching uranium in bunker
Reuters via Jerusalem Post, January 9, 2012

•    Iran Able to Block Strait of Hormuz, General Dempsey Says on CBS
Kathleen Hunter and Viola Gienger, Bloomberg, January 9, 2012

•    Increasingly Isolated, Iranian Leader Set to Visit Allies in Latin America
William Neuman and Simon Romero, The New York Times, January 6, 2012

•    Iran Responds with Anger to Proposals by Europe
J. David Goodman, The New York Times, January 5, 2012

•    Salehi: Iran will survive new sanctions, not worried
Reuters via Jerusalem Post, January 5, 2012

•    Israeli Public Supports Middle East Nuclear Free Zone: A Study of Israeli Jewish Public Opinion
Programme on International Policy Attitudes, November 11-16, 2011

Editorials, Analyses, and Reports

•    What if the Iranians start killing scientists?
Avner Cohen, Haaretz, January 16, 2012

•    Don’t Do It, Bibi
Roger Cohen, The New York Times, January 16, 2012

•    Preventing a Nuclear Iran, Peacefully
Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull, The New York Times, January 15, 2012

•    How Obama should talk to Iran
Trita Parsi, Washington Post, January 13, 2012

•    False Flag
Mark Perry, Foreign Policy, January 13, 2012

•    Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists is Counterproductive and Wrong
Ali Vaez & Charles Ferguson, The Atlantic, January 13, 2012

•    Former IAEA official questions Iran evidence
Julian Borger’s Global Security Blog, The Guardian, January 13, 2012

•    Christmas is No Time for an Iranian Revolution
Hooman Majd, Foreign Affairs, January 11, 2012

•    Ahmadinejad Goes on Tour: What’s Iran’s Agenda in Latin America?
Tim Padgett, TIME, January 10, 2012

•    Times Errors: Iran’s nukes, SF’s voting
Arthur S. Brisbane, The New York Times, January 10, 2012

•    Iran’s Nuclear Program: What Intelligence Would Suffice?
Micah Zenko, CNN Global Public Square (Blog), January 10, 2012
Iran’s nuclear program: What intelligence would suffice?

•    Analysis: Divided Iran dissidents elated, wary on sanctions push
William Maclean, Reuters, January 9, 2012

•    Will Momentum for EU Oil Embargo on Iran Wreck Diplomacy?
Trita Parsi, Huffington Post, January 7, 2012

•    Tour D’ Horizon: An Iranian Optic on the Middle East and its Prospects
Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Conflicts Forum, January 6, 2012

•    Hard-line U.S. Policy Tips Iran Toward Belligerence
Vali Nasr, Bloomberg, January 4, 2012

•    Iran’s Quest for the F6 in its UF6
Mark Hibbs, Arms Control Wonk, January 2, 2012

•    Keeping Iran from Saying Yes
Paul Pillar, National Interest (Blog), December 29, 2011

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