IAEA: Iran ramping up its uranium enrichment

While the world watches Syria and the almost-inevitable Western strikes against Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian nuclear program has flown under the radar of late. A new report from the IAEA shifts the spotlight back on Tehran, where the Iranian nuclear effort has readied more than a thousand uranium-enrichment systems, which give the clearest indication to date that the mullahs want nukes:

The U.N.’s atomic energy agency says Iran has prepared more than 1,000 advanced uranium enriching machines to be started up. The move raises concerns among countries that think Tehran wants to make nuclear arms.

A report released Wednesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has put 1,008 of the advanced centrifuges under vacuum. Such a move is normally one of the last steps before the machines start spinning uranium gas into the material that can be used either as reactor fuel or as the core of nuclear warheads, depending on its enrichment level.

Iran has 15,000 older machines, CBS News notes, but those do not have the same efficiency as the newer systems about to be deployed by Iran.  These newer centrifuges improve efficiency by 300%-400%, which will greatly speed up the kind of enrichment needed for weapons-grade uranium. Assuming that the Iranians already have the technology for the weapon itself and to adapt it to missile delivery systems, the mullahs could have a missile ready to aim at Tel Aviv within a short period of time, although the testing necessary to refine the design might take an additional year or two, as North Korea discovered.

Interestingly, the IAEA released the report less than a day after they reached agreement with Iran to restart nuclear-proliferation talks.  They will begin again on September 27th, with the Parchin complex the main point of contention.  Iran has refused to allow inspectors access to the facility, which the IAEA suspects is being used to test the explosive design within a warhead.

That may become an acute issue, as Iran warned the West to stay out of Syria — or else:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the country’s new cabinet that any U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis would constitute a “disaster for the region.” He warned that “the Americans will suffer damages similar to when they interfered in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Starting this fire will be like lighting a spark in a large gunpowder keg, with unclear and unspecified outcomes and consequences,” Khamenei said. …

The conservative speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, was more ominous, saying that a hasty attack on Syria would result in heavy losses for the United States and its allies, especially Israel.

“If adventurous countries want to take this action, they will be plunging into an unclear situation, and the Zionist regime, specifically, will face an even more bitter doom than the 33-days war,” Larijani said, referring to the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

This is the wild card in the Syrian standoff.  Assad is Iran’s most strategic partner in the region, and any attempt to depose him will produce a big response from a country with significant military resources.  If they decide to respond to a US/UK strike on Assad with an attack on Israel, Israel will respond — and the US will have to do so as well. That might leave places like Parchin and even the nuclear site at Bushehr open for retaliatory strikes, but this will touch off a regional war that would set the Middle East on fire, and possibly well beyond those borders.  Unless Russia and China can convince Iran to sit on the sidelines, this will get ugly, and we may see Iran’s nuclear capability a lot sooner than we expect.