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Thursday
Feb212013

Iran Live Coverage: A New --- and Genuine --- Offer in the Nuclear Talks?

See also Iran Analysis: Taking Apart the "Iranian Terror Cell in Nigeria" Story
Wednesday's Iran Live Coverage: Detaining the Journalists


2055 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Amid the inevitable political spin around the IAEA report on Iran's nuclear programme, Al Monitor hands over its summary to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Unsurprisingly, Albright, with a long-time pattern of hostility towards Tehran, is selective in trying to present an IAEA condemnation of the Islamic Republic. He introduces the new charge that the Tehran Research Reactor, known for its production of medical isotopes, is testing fuel for a heavy water reactor at Arak. Then he puts out the line that new centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant --- even though Tehran says they are for 5% uranium only --- are an ominous power play by Iran: “The depressing news is they think they’re strengthening their position by racing ahead with the installation of all these machines."

Al Monitor helps out Albright with the unsupported assessment, "Another possibility is that Iran — despite its frequent protestations to the contrary — is seeking to make nuclear weapons or at least become a “virtual” nuclear weapons state with the capacity to build bombs quickly." Somewhat confusingly, it has the later contradiction --- which is based on information from the IAEA report:

The good news in the report is that Iran in December resumed sending some of its 20%-enriched uranium for conversion into fuel for the TRR. While Iran has added to its stockpile of 20% uranium since the IAEA's last report in November, it is still below what is believed to be an Israeli red line for possible military action.

1945 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. The latest defiance from the President --- "The new 'dust and trash' will be eliminated by the hands of the Hidden Imam."

The reference is especially sharp because it echoes Ahmadinejad's "victory" speech on the day after the June 2009 Presidential election, when he called his opponents "dust and trash".

1805 GMT: Nuclear Watch. I have now read the full "confidential" IAEA report --- as customary, first appearing on the website of the Institute for Science and International Security. The key points:

1. The IAEA witnessed the installation of 180 new IR-2 centrifuges, an upgrade from 40-year-old IR-1 centrifuges, at the Natanz enrichment plant.

The Agency does not express any specific concern about the IR-2 centrifuges, which are enriching uranium to 5%.

See EA Video Analysis: How to Become An Expert on the Iranian Nuclear Programme

2. Iran's stock of 20% uranium is now 280 kilogrammes, an increase of 47 kg (about 20%) from December.

However, about half of this additional uranium has been converted to fuel plates, which cannot be enriched further for military use.

In total, 113 of the 280 kilogrammes (about 40%) are in fuel plates.

3. As with past reports, the IAEA does not find any evidence of an Iranian effort for a militarised nuclear programme. Its concern continues to be over full access to Iranian nuclear facilities:

While the Agency continues to verify the non-di version of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implem enting its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assuranc e about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nucl ear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

In particular, the IAEA cites its inability to enter the Parchin military base, which has been alleged --- by Western officials --- to host a high-explosive container which can be used in testing of a militarised nuclear capability.

Expect that --- as well as exaggerated and misleading summaries of Iran's new centrifuges and 20% stock --- to be the headline in much of the Western press tomorrow.

1725 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Extracts from the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear programme are being leaked, and Western journalists are already putting out misleading summaries, based on their presumptions of the level of Tehran's threat.

For example, Fredrik Dahl of Reuters trots out this boiler-plate --- and deceptive --- opening paragraph:

Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant, a U.N. nuclear report said on Thursday, a defiant step likely to anger world powers ahead of a resumption of talks with Tehran next week.

In fact, the upgraded centrifuges only enrich uranium to 5%, not even the 20% level of concern to the US and European countries.

Dahl continues with the juxtaposition of Iran's increase of 20% stock to 167 kilogramme (367 pounds) with the note, "about 240-250 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium is needed for one atomic bomb if refined to a high degree".

However, after this scary note, Dahl fails to investigate how much of Iran's 20% stock has been converted to fuel plates, which are not suitable for military use, even though he had written only this morning that the conversion had resumed.

As of December, about 40% of Iran's 20% uranium had been turned into fuel plates.

The BBC does not even bother to put in numbers in its summary:

Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuge machines for enriching uranium at its nuclear plant at Natanz, says the UN's nuclear watchdog.

The IAEA said it suspected Iran may have also held explosives tests relevant to nuclear weapons.

The step will concern world powers ahead of a resumption of talks with Tehran next week, analysts say.

1715 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Gonabadi dervishes have gathered in front of Evin Prison in support of detained colleagues and their lawyers.

The Majzooban-e Noor website said some protesters were briefly arrested by security forces.

In early September 2011, more than 60 Gonabadi dervishes, members of a branch of Sufi Islam, and their lawyers were arrested in Kavar, Shiraz, and Tehran.

1710 GMT: Currency Watch. In a possible sign of trouble with foreign exchange reserves, the Central Bank has restricted transactions for the US dollar and Russian ruble.

A Bank official assured that sufficient Euros and Chinese yuan would be available next week to meet demand.

1640 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Two analyses today of the political situation, with EA WorldView contibuting to each....

Michael Theodoulou of The National highlights Ahmadinejad's defiance, "He was never going to bow out quietly or gracefully. But few predicted just how full of sound and fury Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's final months in office would be." However, he gives space to those who think the President is swinging from weakness:

Some suspect Mr Khamenei cannot control the president because Mr Ahmadinejad has incriminating evidence against the supreme leader, his aides and family from secret intelligence files.

But others believe the president used his strongest card during the stormy parliamentary session and is now bluffing. Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said: "I really doubt Ahmadinejad has many more aces up his sleeve. He's using a poor hand to take it as far as he can to make his opponents back down."

Marcus George of Reuters links the political battle with the nuclear issue, "Power Struggle, Not Nuclear Deal, Priority for Iranian Elite", with EA's contribution:

The Supreme Leader left the door open. Once you break down his comments, they show that Iran wants something done on sanctions and that unless a serious move on that is made, he won't or can't trust the U.S....

[But] the issue of Khamenei's domestic authority supersedes the nuclear talks. The supreme leader has to fight a battle to put Ahmadinejad in his place. The question is whether he is in control of the situation.

1555 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch (Blogger Edition). The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports on 30-year-old blogger Kaveh Taheri held for four months without trial in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz.

Taheri was arrested in September and charged with “acting against national security” and “creating public anxiety in cyberspace". His sister Laleh told ICHRI that her brother was not involved in politics, and only had a personal blog.

However, following Taheri's arrest, security forces discovered a EuroNews reporter ID in his possession, and added two additional charges: “reporting for the news agency” and “collaborating in the production of a documentary film”.

1405 GMT: Tough Talk of the Day. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, told soldiers last night, "All of us in the current era are tasked with continuing the clear and bright path of the martyrs":

Today, more than ever, it is required that we focus on the message of the Shohada [martyrs], which is based on strengthening the divine spirit, obedience to the Holy Truth, following the Velayat-e Faqih [clerical rule], sacrifice, and resistance to the enemy’s treachery, and on this path we [should] persevere.

1355 GMT: Elections Watch. An interesting declaration by Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai --- President Ahmadinejad's right-hand man and likely Presidential candidate in June -- in an interview: "We are a wave. Standing still would lead to our non-existence."

Some observers, notably the similarity to the Green Movement's protest theme after the 2009 Presidential ballot, are speculating that Rahim-Mashai is reaching out to reformists and Greens with the statement.

1350 GMT: Cyber-Watch. The opposition site Peyke Iran, knocked off-line for days, has said that it will re-launch today.

1246 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Amid the latest flutters about the possible line of the "West" in next week's nuclear talks, Iranian officials maintain the position that successful talks are possible if the US demonstrates a change in its “tone” and a willingness to “cooperate”.

The director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, has expressed optimism about the prospects of the next Tuesday's discussions with the 5+1 Powers in Kazakhstan.

Declaring that Iran had not exceeded international laws in its nuclear programme, Abbasi-Davani said, “Like in the past, we will follow our path with strength to stabilize science and technology in the country and the parties [to talks] must also negotiate with us based on this.”

Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani said yesterday, “Progress in nuclear talks with Iran requires tangible and practical changes in the tone and manner of the West, especially the Americans.”

0735 GMT: The Battle of the Nuclear Spin. Earlier (see 0635 GMT) we noted a sign that Western diplomats are trying to take any sense of crisis out of the nuclear issue, with talks next week in Kazakhstan.

Not so fast.

If Fredrik Dahl of Reuters was fed the not-so-new story that Iran is converting its higher-enriched uranium to fuel plates for civilian-only use, George Jahn of the Associated Press has been given this script:

In a disheartening signal to world powers at upcoming Iran talks, Tehran has started installing high-tech machines at its main uranium enrichment site that are capable of accelerating production of reactor fuel and — with further upgrading — the core of nuclear warheads, diplomats said Wednesday.

In fact, as we noted repeatedly last week, the new centrifuges --- which replace 40-year-old machines at the Natanz plant --- are only for the production of 5% uranium, not even the 20% uranium that concerns the US and Europe.

Jahn, however, does not seem aware of this, as he puts out --- in contrast to Reuters' reassuring story --- the gloomy "analysis":

The start of the centrifuge upgrade at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site southeast of Tehran, flies in the face of world-power efforts to induce Iran to scale back on enrichment. As such, it is likely to hurt chances of progress at Feb. 26 talks in Kazakhstan between the two sides — adding to a string of negotiating failures.

0645 GMT: Scare Story of the Week. Haaretz reports:

Nigerian security forces uncovered an Iranian terror cell that was allegedly planning to launch attacks against Israeli and American targets in the city of Lagos, Nigerian authorities said Wednesday.

Three members of the cell were arrested by security forces. The leader, Abdullahi Berende, a 50-year-old Shiite Muslim Nigerian citizen, was arrested on December 12, 2012, after six months of surveillance. Two other members --- Sulaiman Saka and Saheed Adewumi --- were also arrested. The fourth member of the terror cell, Benyamin Yosuf, managed to escape.

The spokeswoman of the Nigerian police said Wednesday that the cell was planning to carry out an attack on the offices of USAID, as well as on the offices of the Israeli container shipping company Zim, and on the Jewish cultural center in the city of Lagos, which is considered the financial capital of Nigeria.

But is the story really that scary and really that Iranian? We will have analysis later this morning.

0635 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Whether or not the supposed new offer from the West has "significant new elements" (see 0600 GMT), its diplomats are putting out the line --- markedly difference from three months ago --- that the situation over Iran's nuclear programme is not critical.

Reuters benefits from the latest spin:

A U.N. nuclear watchdog report due this week is expected to show that growth of Iran's stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium has slowed as it is using some of the material to make reactor fuel,

If confirmed in the quarterly report, the development could help buy time for big power diplomacy to try and find a negotiated settlement to a decade-old dispute that has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.

The "news" is actually quite old. Last summer, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Tehran had converted more than 40% of its stock of 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates, which can only be used in civilian programmes.

Earlier this month, after a period of playing up the possible military threat, diplomats put out the line that the conversion had resumed.

What is significant here is the timing, with the supposed revelation coming only days before the 5+1 Powers meet Iran in Kazazhstan.

0600 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Reuters featured the news last night, from an unnamed "Western diplomat", that the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany) will make an offer with "significant new elements" to Iran over its nuclear programme next week.

The 5+1 Powers and the Islamic Republic meet in Kazakhstan next Tuesday in the first high-level talks in eight months.

"We will take an offer with us which we believe to be a serious and substantial offer," the Western diplomat said in London. "This is an offer which we think has significant new elements in it."

Earlier this week, Washington indicated that it would remove sanctions against transfer of gold and precious metals to Iran, in return for Tehran's move away from enrichment of 20% uranium and closure of its Fordoo plant.

I was dismissive of the signal since the sanctions were imposed less than two weeks ago I believed that Iran would see the proposal as a cynical American attempt, putting on and then removing punishing measures to get one-sided Iranian concessions.

So will this new offer be any different? The diplomat --- speaking in London, is he British? --- refused to give any specifics. He also "played down the chances of an immediate breakthrough": "We are approaching the talks with a sense of urgency but this is not necessarily a sprint."

Thus, back to the basic analysis I offered on Tuesday. Both the 5+1 and Iran are gathering in Kazakhstan next week to give the appearance that talks have not broken down, thus holding off any push for military action against Tehran. Any serious discussions will be in the autumn.

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