- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Russia’s atomic agency announced Tuesday it will build eight civilian nuclear reactors for Iran, a move that adds complexity and tension to ongoing Western negotiations over the Islamic republic’s disputed nuclear program.

Moscow has helped Tehran produce nuclear-generated electricity since the early 1990s. But news of the program’s sudden expansion comes ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline for the international nuclear talks to fall apart or culminate in deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear activities.

Western powers for years have suspected Iran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies, claiming its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes such as electricity and medical needs.

It remains to be seen how Tuesday’s announcement will affect the year-old talks between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 group — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.

The talks, which already had been extended after missing a deadline six months ago, may be continued beyond the Nov. 24 deadline. But there are signs a lasting agreement remains far from reach.

U.S. and Iranian officials have said they failed to make progress toward a deal during the latest round of talks over the weekend.

SEE ALSO: Iran leader’s call to ‘annihilate’ Israel throws wrench in nuclear talks

Moreover, the talks were held beneath a widening shadow of frustration among the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who say Iran’s program continues to lack the transparency required to convince the West that no nuclear bomb is being made.

The Associated Press reported Friday that a U.N. Security Council-backed IAEA team had issued a classified report lamenting Iran’s unwillingness to provide international inspectors with access to its nuclear sites — despite having agreed to such access as a pretext for the nuclear talks.

The IAEA has long sought access an Iranian military facility southeast of Tehran known as Parchin. The agency, according to the AP, had said it suspects Iran keeps a special chamber at the facility for testing high explosives linked to setting of a nuclear blast.

An Iranian opposition group, meanwhile, claimed Friday to have inside intelligence linked to such testing. The National Coalition of Resistance of Iran told reporters in Washington that a second explosives chamber exists at an unknown location inside Iran, and that it and the Parchin facility were built by a company with ties to Iran’s military.

The Obama administration had provided $5.7 billion in sanctions relief to Iran as part of a preliminary agreement in the ongoing nuclear talks — under which Tehran promised to dilute or convert its existing stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, material that could be used to develop a weapon.

Prospects for a more permanent deal seemed to dim further Tuesday, when a former top nuclear inspector claimed the international community remains in the dark about Tehran’s stockpiles of nuclear material and advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.

“We don’t know where [the Iranians] are today,” said Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the IAEA, whose inspectors have long been tasked by the Security Council with determining the status of Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Heinonen, who spent 27 years at agency before his current role as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, told reporters that inspectors cannot be certain Iran is not hiding thousands of advanced IR-2m uranium enrichment centrifuges — and that the Islamic republic may be within months of developing a nuclear weapon.

“If you have 1,000 of these centrifuges and you start with natural uranium, at the end of one year, you have enough material for one nuclear device at least,” Mr. Heinonen said. “If you take 2,000 of these centrifuges and natural uranium, it will be half [the time]. If you take 4,000 of them, it will be three months.”

But the time it takes to reach “breakout capacity” for a nuclear weapon is cut “to less than half,” Mr. Heinonen said, if one begins with low-enriched uranium — something Iran has sought the right to possess during the ongoing nuclear talks.

He added that, regardless of any potential agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran, at the end of the day, the Islamic republic remains under the demand of a host of past Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt its nuclear activities.

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