Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material


Reuters reported on Monday that a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the U.N.'s atomic watchdog - would be holding talks until Tuesday on among other things "how the U.N. agency would monitor a planned heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak," which the West has long demanded Tehran either fully dismantle or at a minimum downgrade to a light water version. The discovery in early 2013 that Iran had resumed progress on the Arak facility, which contains a heavy water production facility and the reactor, was described at the time as the Islamic republic's "Plan B" for acquiring a nuclear weapon. The current IR-40 reactor would allow Iran to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year. Top Western diplomats and analysts, including those [PDF] linked to the U.S. government and the IAEA, have for years rejected Iranian pretexts for operating any heavy water reactor, and have emphasized instead that Tehran could replace the IR-40 with "a significantly more proliferation-resistant light water research reactor" with no losses. Inadequate interim concessions regarding Arak were reportedly what prevented the P5+1 global powers and Iran from coming to a interim agreement in mid-November, in a session before the current interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreement was agreed upon. Iranian officials have been publicly unequivocal in repeatedly drawing red lines against downgrading the Arak reactor, and Behrouz Kamalvandi - a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) - reiterated the stance last Friday. Kamalvandi went on to declare that Iran would refuse to "shut down or change any facility." Some Western analysts and journalists have nonetheless found grounds for optimism in Iranian declarations that the P5+1 was coming around to a counter-offer, under which Tehran would keep the Arak reactor unmodified but would reduce the amount of power it produced by half or even three-fourths. AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi in recent days doubled down on that position, declaring that the Islamic republic would not fundamentally alter the reactor, but would arrange for it to produce less plutonium. Israeli security officials have rejected the proposal, with Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz suggesting that there's little to be gained by enabling the Iranians to "create one [bomb] every two years" rather than "a bomb every year." More pointedly, once the reactor is activated there would be no functional way for it to be destroyed militarily, and nothing to stop the Iranians from simply reverting to processes that produce higher yields of plutonium.


A Hezbollah-linked member of Lebanon's parliament took to Voice of Lebanon radio to declare that lawmakers from his Loyalty to the Resistance bloc would exercise what he described as their "constitutional right not to enter parliament," setting up a deadlock in what will be that body's third attempt to elect a president on Wednesday. The March 8 alliance, which Hezbollah anchors, had previously been blasted by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman for boycotting such sessions, thereby "obstructing the election process through not providing a quorum." MP Kamel Rifai nonetheless told the radio station that he and allied MPs would again decline to participate in the parliamentary procedures, emphasizing that they had no obligation to do so because they do not have a candidate. The trick has not gone unnoticed by Hezbollah's opponents. The Future bloc on Tuesday issued a statement calling on March 8 to select "a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary session in order to prevent void in the president’s seat." The statement was blunt in linking Hezbollah's refusal to do so to Iranian machinations, blasting a recent statement by a top aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "reveal[ing] the true purposes behind Iran’s relation with Hezbollah, and the missions that Iran gives to [this] party." Yahya Rahim Safavi had described southern Lebanon as Iran's "frontmost line of defense" and boasted that Iran's "strategic depth has now stretched to the Mediterranean coasts and just to the north of Israel." Hezbollah's moves to keep Beirut politically paralyzed, the Future bloc statement insisted, called into question whether "Hezbollah [is] a party specialized in defending Lebanon against Israel and its aggressions, or is it a party specialized in defending Iran and its regime." The organization had long leveraged its now-shattered brand as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory against outside interference, using the pretext to amass a massive arsenal and insulate a state-within-a-state across swaths of Lebanon. It's position had for many years been echoed by segments of the Western foreign policy establishment.


Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday reported that Turkey's parliament, which is controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had established what the outlet described as a "single inquiry commission... dominated by the [AKP] itself," to investigate graft charges against four former AKP ministers from the government of AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The session that established the inquiry, which will be chaired by an AKP deputy, was described as "tense." At stake are allegations that stem from an extended bout of open political warfare, stretching back to late 2013, in which judiciary and police figures linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen launched a series of corruption investigations that eventually ensnared a range of AKP elites, including Erdogan and members of his family. Erdogan and his allies responded by purging literally thousands of judges and police officers. Late last week the head of Turkey's Financial Crime Investigation Board was dismissed in what Hurriyet described "as part of the whirlwind of purges in the Finance Ministry," part of a broader "war with bureaucrats suspected of having ties [to Gulen]" and being linked to the "graft investigation that charged four ministers, their sons and dozens of pro-government businessmen and bureaucrats." At least two other top figures from the Finance Ministry were also removed. Meanwhile Ankara's chief prosecutor's office announced that it was launching a probe of Gulen himself for attempting to overthrow the government. News subsequently emerged that Erdogan had reached the decision, after a five-hour session of top AKP figures, that he would run in Turkey's direct presidential election, currently scheduled for August.


An interview with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi aired Monday - the first televised sit-down that the presumptive future president has done during the current campaign - saw Sisi declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate as a national movement under his administration, accusing the Islamist movement of having fomented national instability both directly and by proxy. Reuters characterized the key exchange as Sisi being asked whether the Brotherhood would no longer exist if he was elected, and him responding "Yes. Just like that." Egyptian security forces have systematically moved to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership structure since a government led by the movement's then-president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military in mid-2013 amid mass protests calling for Morsi's resignation. Morsi's government had brought the country to the brink of outright state failure, and observers at the time feared that Egypt was caught in a downward spiral in which a lack of foreign currency drove instability, and instability prevented foreign currency from flowing in. Last weekend Sisi went so far as to blame "hardline religious rhetoric" for having undermined Egypt's critical tourism sector, publishing a video to YouTube in which he promised to restore tourism and "allow people to earn." The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday assessed that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken.."

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