President Barack Obama said on Saturday that the recent nuclear deal with Iran was the best strategy for preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. On the same day a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency said it was moving ahead with testing more efficient uranium enrichment technology.
Appearing in Washington at the Saban Forum, an event hosted by a a major political donor, Obama said the deal prevented Iran from advancing its nuclear programme for six months. He said that over that time, the world will test Iran to see if the crisis can be resolved diplomatically.
The president also acknowledged some tactical differences with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who called the deal “an historic mistake”, but said that US and Israeli bottom-line goals are the same. Obama made a point of referring to the Israeli leader as “my friend Bibi”.
Obama said he viewed the likelihood of a satisfactory “end state” on Iran as a 50/50 proposition, and repeated that all options remained on the table if Iran did not follow through with its obligations.
“If we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community … then the pressure that we’ve been applying on them and the options that I have made clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we would consider and prepare for,” he said.
Obama said it was unrealistic to believe that Iran would halt and dismantle its nuclear programme completely if the successful sanctions regime were continually strengthened and talks were not given a chance to succeed.
“One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, ‘We’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone.’ I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful,” he said, to laughter from the audience.
“But precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves: what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran’s not having a nuclear weapon … what is required to accomplish that and how does that compare to other options that we might take?”
The US says it will confer closely with Israel about crafting a permanent Iran agreement after the six-month confidence-building period laid out by the Geneva deal.
In Iran on Saturday, the spokesman for the country’s atomic energy agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, was quoted by the state news agency IRNA as saying that initial testing on a new generation of more sophisticated centrifuges had been completed, underlining Iran’s determination to keep refining uranium in what it says is work to make fuel for a planned network of nuclear power plants.
Although the development does not appear to contravene the interim agreement struck between world powers and Iran last month, it may concern the West nonetheless, as the material can also provide the fissile core of a nuclear bomb if enriched to a high degree.
In Washington, Obama said the agreement with Iran halted and rolled back central elements of Iran’s programme and compelled Iran to eliminate higher-enriched uranium stockpiles, stop adding new centrifuges and cease work at a heavy-water reactor that could potentially produce plutonium.
Kamalvandi was quoted as saying: “The new generation of centrifuges was produced with a higher capacity compared with the first generation machines and we have completed initial tests. The production of a new generation of centrifuges is in line with the agency’s approach of upgrading the quality of enrichment machines and increasing the rate of production by using the maximum infrastructure facilities.”
Kamalvandi said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been informed of the development.
Iran’s development of a new generation of centrifuges – machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope – could enable it to refine uranium much faster. Under the 24 November interim accord with the six world powers, Iran promised not to start operating them or instal any more for a period of six months. But the agreement seems to allow it to continue with research and development activity at its Natanz pilot plant.
Iran earlier this year stoked the West’s worries by starting to install a new centrifuge – the IR-2m – at its Natanz enrichment plant. Iran is testing the IR-2m and other models at its research and development facility at Natanz.
Kamalvandi did not specify whether the new centrifuge model he was referring to was the IR-2m. It is currently using a 1970s model, the IR-1, to refine uranium at the main Natanz plant and its efforts to replace this breakdown-prone centrifuge are being closely watched. Some experts believe the IR-2m can enrich uranium 2-3 times faster than the IR-1.
UN inspectors arrived in Tehran on Saturday and are due for the first time in more than two years to visit a plant linked to a planned heavy-water reactor that could yield nuclear bomb fuel, taking up an initial gesture by Iran to open its disputed nuclear programme up to greater scrutiny.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, a key player in the Iran talks, was due to deliver the Saban Forum’s keynote speech on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, Netanyahu will speak in a conversation moderated by the broadcaster Charlie Rose.