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That concern is particularly grave given Iran’s recent announcement that it has powerful new centrifuges that allow it to enrich uranium even faster, a move that could see Iran complete a nuclear bomb in a matter of months. The news comes just as the annual CIA report to Congress makes clear that Iran in the past year has expanded its nuclear program, building new infrastructure and forging ahead with uranium enrichment. The CIA’s conclusion is in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s February report that Iran is rapidly expanding its enrichment efforts. In its Natanz uranium enrichment facility alone, according to the IAEA, Iran increased the number of nuclear centrifuges from 6,000 last fall to 9,000 today.
All the available evidence suggests that Iran has not been deterred from pursuing its nuclear project. Given that reality, Israeli officials have pushed for a more aggressive response to Iran’s nuclear activities than the talks that have failed in the past. In Israel’s assessment, Iran is nearing a “zone of immunity” that could see Iran complete its nuclear program inside bunkered facilities beyond the reach of Israeli bombs, rendering any Israeli response in vain. At that point, there would be no stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration’s view is that point has not yet been reached. The administration claims that U.S. intelligence will clearly signal when Iran has decided to move from the enrichment phase toward a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Considering the track record of U.S. intelligence in recent years, that confidence seems excessive at best. Nonetheless, the administration this week is championing what it calls an “intelligence surge” inside Iran, part of a continuing effort to expand surveillance and intelligence gathering inside Iran. But however worthwhile, such intelligence is not faultless. Many intelligence experts caution that Iran has become increasingly skillful at hiding its nuclear program, particularly now that it has more powerful centrifuges that can enrich uranium in smaller facilities.
Ultimately, the major problem with this week’s talks is not that they are unlikely to be successful, although that seems almost certain. Rather, it is that, as in the past, they will afford Iran more time to make continued progress with a nuclear program that it has no intention of stopping. Absent the credible prospect of a military response, Iran will have little reason to think that the latest “last chance” of diplomacy will really be the last.
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