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Iran getting closer to nukes!

It's Iran Stupid! Hello!

Iran Adds to Pressure on U.S. With Nuclear Program Acceleration

U.N. says Tehran has increased output of near-weapons-grade uranium after summer slowdown

By Laurence Norman, WSJ

Updated Dec. 26, 2023

Iran has tripled production of nearly weapons-grade uranium in a move likely to deepen its confrontation with the West as Tehran helps allied militias to attack Israel and U.S. forces in the region.

Iran’s decision to triple its production rate of near-weapons-grade uranium marks the collapse of quiet diplomatic efforts between Washington and Tehran to ease tensions. It comes amid a proliferation of flashpoints between the U.S. and Iran, whose proxies have repeatedly traded fire with U.S. forces in the Middle East since the bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted on Oct. 7. U.S. and European navies are also shooting down drones launched by the Iran-backed Houthis in the Red Sea.

The Pentagon said Saturday that a drone launched from Iran struck a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean, signaling a widening risk to shipping after Yemeni rebels started attacking vessels in the Red Sea.

In a report to International Atomic Energy Agency member states, Director-General Rafael Grossi said that agency inspectors had confirmed on Dec. 19 and Dec. 24 an increased production of highly enriched uranium at both of Iran’s main nuclear facilities that the agency said Tehran had started on Nov. 22.

The increase took Iran’s production of 60% enriched uranium back to the rate of nine kilograms a month, where it stood early this year, before Tehran curbed work on the most dangerous part of its nuclear program.

Iran is the only country in the world that isn’t a declared nuclear power currently producing 60% enriched uranium, which can be converted to weapons-grade material within days. U.S. officials have said it would take Iran less than two weeks to convert enough 60% material into a form that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

Experts say Iran already has a sufficient stock of highly enriched uranium to fuel three weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program is for purely peaceful civilian use. U.S. officials have said in recent months that they have no evidence Tehran is currently working on completing its ability to build a nuclear weapon.

In its confidential report to member states, the agency also said that Iran had also linked its centrifuges again in a way that would allow it to start producing weapons-grade material even faster, a move likely to deepen concerns that Tehran is considering stepping over the 90% weapons grade threshold.

The agency said that Iran had connected up two sets of advanced centrifuges using so-called modified sub-headers. The agency discovered in January that Tehran had previously produced a small amount of 83% highly enriched uranium, a level just shy of weapons grade.

U.S. and European officials have warned that if Iran produces weapons-grade material, it would spark a crisis that could prompt a sharp escalation in economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran. Israel has warned it could take military action against Iran if Tehran starts producing uranium enriched to 90%.

After a series of indirect talks in Oman in the spring, where the hosts played go-between for senior U.S. and Iranian officials, Tehran and Washington floated steps the U.S. hoped would reduce tensions and avoid a crisis ahead of U.S. elections in November.

The diplomacy took place because of the collapse of negotiations in the summer of 2022 on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted broad international sanctions on Iran in exchange for tight but temporary restrictions on its nuclear work.

U.S. officials sketched out several steps they hoped Iran would take. They included a prisoner swap that took place in September, a halt to firings by Iranian proxies at U.S. forces in the region, and a curbing of Iran’s nuclear program, in particular a sharp reduction or pause in Tehran’s production of highly enriched uranium. Iran began throttling back in June.

In exchange, the U.S. was prepared to give Iran access to billions of dollars trapped under U.S. sanctions. Washington also sent signals it wouldn’t sharpen its enforcement of oil sanctions on Iran and would be open to resuming talks about Tehran’s nuclear program.

Further indirect negotiations were scheduled to take place in Oman in mid-October but the U.S. canceled them after Tehran came out in support of the Hamas terrorist attack of Oct. 7, which Israel says killed more than 1,200 people.

A State Department spokesperson said the administration is “greatly concerned” with the IAEA report and that Iran has “no credible civilian justification” to enrich up to 60%.

“Iran’s nuclear escalation is all the more concerning at a time when Iran as well as Iran-backed militant groups and Iran’s proxies continue their dangerous and destabilizing activities in the region,” the spokesperson said. “Iran must fully cooperate with the IAEA.”

Iran’s nuclear-program acceleration adds another potential flashpoint between Tehran and Washington at a time of heightened volatility across the region over Israel’s conflict in Gaza, which authorities in the Hamas-controlled Strip say has cost more than 20,000 lives.

There have been almost daily attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria against U.S. forces. On Monday, the U.S. said it struck three drone facilities used by a Shiite militant group and other groups in Iraq in response to a series of attacks by the groups on American positions in Iraq and Syria, including an attack Monday in northern Iraq, in which three U.S. troops were wounded, including one critically.

The U.S. sent two aircraft carrier strike groups and a nuclear submarine to the eastern Mediterranean to bolster deterrence against Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful militia, in a bid to prevent a conflict between Israel and Lebanon in the weeks after Oct. 7. More recently, it created a special naval task force in the Red Sea to deal with broadening attacks against commercial shipping from Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen and deployed one of the two aircraft carriers, the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, to the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen.

On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command said that U.S. assets from the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group shot down 12 one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles and two land-attack cruise missiles in the Southern Red Sea that were fired by the Houthis over a 10-hour period from early morning. There was no damage to ships in the area of reported injuries, Central Command said on X, formerly Twitter.

Iran also continues to aid Russia in its war with Ukraine, part of a growing axis between Iran and Washington’s top international foes.

The breadth of Iran-linked provocations in the region and beyond has led to a sharper debate in the Biden administration over how to approach Tehran in the coming months if the Gaza conflict dies down, U.S. officials say.

While parts of the administration still favor finding diplomatic solutions to ease the range of tensions, officials say there are louder voices than previously arguing that the breadth of Tehran’s militia-linked capabilities has reached an unprecedented level and that it needs to be tackled.

Michael R. Gordon contributed to this article.

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