- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The White House scrambled Tuesday to try to limit the damage from reports from a U.N. watchdog group that Iran nuclear fuel stockpiles are growing, revelations that could put a nuclear accord with Tehran by this summer in doubt.

The U.N.’s Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said its latest report found that Iran’s fuel stocks have grown by roughly 20 percent over the past 18 months and have not been “frozen” during that period, as the Obama administration has previously claimed.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that the IAEA findings are “merely a snapshot in time,” and U.S. officials remain confident that Iran is working to shrink its stockpile under terms agreed to in the preliminary deal reached with Washington and other world powers in April.

But President Obama faced fresh fire over the deal from another corner Tuesday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned again that the developing agreement would “pave the way for Iran to [have] atom bombs,” and Mr. Obama, in a subsequent interview with Israeli’s largest television network, accused the Netanyahu government of being driven by fear and suspicion that was hurting the country’s own interests.

Hours before Mr. Obama’s interview aired, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel must rely on itself “first and foremost” if the U.S. and its allies proceed with what he sees as a fundamentally flawed deal with Iran.

“When speaking of Israelis’ security, I rely first and foremost on ourselves, and proof of this is the agreement emerging between the world powers and Iran,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Not only will that deal lead to Iran possessing nuclear arms, he said, but easing economic sanctions will also provide Tehran with billions of additional dollars to further destabilize the region through terrorist attacks.

For his part, Mr. Obama told the Israeli network that he will not sign a nuclear agreement with Iran unless it’s verifiable, and he tried to downplay concerns that Tehran would use its extra cash from the end of international sanctions to finance more terrorism.

The Iranians “have a low-tech but very effective mechanism of financing proxies, of creating chaos in regions,” Mr. Obama said. “And they’ve also shown themselves, regardless of sanctions, to be willing to finance Hezbollah with rockets and others even in the face of sanctions. So the question then becomes, ‘Are they going to suddenly be able to finance 10 times the number of Hezbollah fighters?’ Probably not.”

A key facet of the talks, which face a June 30 deadline, is Iran’s promise to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium from roughly 10,000 kilograms down to 300 kilograms. But that reduction has yet to occur, according to the IAEA report issued late last week.

Diplomatic shake-up

It was not immediately clear Tuesday how the revelation will affect the talks, especially after a flurry of moves that has upset the U.S. diplomatic team.

First Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks, announced last week that she’s leaving the State Department shortly after the June 30 negotiations deadline. Then Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has taken the lead in the final days of the talks, broke his leg in a bicycle accident Sunday in France.

While doctors said Tuesday that a fractured femur sustained in the accident should not interfere with the 71-year-old Mr. Kerry’s diplomatic schedule, administration officials acknowledge the injury can be expected to temper his involvement in the nuclear talks.

President Obama and other world leaders hailed achievement of a “framework” for a final agreement with Iran in April. But a host of details still needs to be ironed out for a final deal to ease international sanctions in exchange for caps on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

One of the biggest obstacles involves Tehran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile.

The New York Times, which first reported on the IAEA finding, said Western officials are uncertain about why the stockpile is now growing rather than shrinking. One explanation is that Iran is having technical problems that have kept it from converting some of its enriched uranium into fuel rods for civilian reactors, but another is that Tehran is actively increasing its stockpile to secure an edge if the nuclear talks collapse.

Mr. Earnest pushed back, stressing that Iran has been allowed to continue enriching uranium at a low level.

“That means there are going to be ebbs and flows in terms of the amount of low-enriched uranium in their stockpile,” he said. “The requirement is for them to be at the cap by June 30, and our nuclear experts continue to have confidence that they will meet that requirement.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf went farther, calling it “bizarre” that The New York Times would home in on the fluctuating size of Iran’s low-enriched stockpile. “There’s normal fluctuation,” she said. “They’re allowed to do certain things as long as they get their stockpile back to a certain place.”

Ms. Harf asserted that Iran has not violated the April framework for a final deal. Iran is not installing new enrichment centrifuges or making progress at its nuclear facilities, and “they’re providing the IAEA access,” she said. “They’ve always been in compliance. The IAEA has always confirmed that.”

Iran claims its nuclear program is for purely peaceful means. And the latest IAEA report offers some evidence to support the claim. The report does not explicitly accuse Iran of violating the terms of the framework agreement, and says Tehran has stopped work on facilities that could potentially have been used to make a nuclear weapon.

But the agency clearly states that Iran has continued with low-level uranium enrichment and now has a stockpile of some 8,715 kilograms of the material — well above the 300 kilograms called for in the nuclear talks.

An analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, which posted the IAEA report on its website Tuesday, concluded that “Iran has clearly fallen behind on its pledge” to cut the stockpile. But the analysis also says the reason for why is not clear, and suggests it may be a result of technical problems encountered by Iranian officials attempting to make good on the pledge.

Either way, the stockpile’s current size appears to contradict past comments by top Obama administration officials. Mr. Kerry had told reporters in November that as the nuclear negotiations carried forward, Iran’s nuclear program was “frozen,” and Mr. Obama has claimed Iran has “reduced” its nuclear fuel holdings while the negotiations on a final deal have dragged on.

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