Iran is believed to be expanding uranium enrichment activity deep inside a mountain, diplomatic sources said on Monday, a move likely to add to tension with Western powers that suspect Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons capability, as the U.S. and eight other countries were staging a major amphibious exercise, fighting an Iran-like fictional enemy.
The move to increase sensitive nuclear work at the Fordow underground site near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom, even if expected, underlines the Islamic state's defiance in the face of intensifying Western pressure to curb such activity.
Iran last month confirmed it had begun refining uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at Fordow, shifting its highest-grade enrichment from an above-ground location to better protect it against any strikes by Israel or the United States.
Washington, which has not ruled out military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to resolve the long-running nuclear dispute, on Jan. 9 denounced the start-up of the Fordow plant as a further escalation of Iran’s “ongoing violations” of U.N. resolutions.
At that time, diplomats said Iran was operating at Fordow two so-called cascades, each of 174 centrifuges -- machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope. More centrifuges were being installed, they said.
Enriched uranium can have both civilian and military uses.
One Vienna-based diplomat said two more cascades, like the first pair connected with each other to make the process more efficient, had now also been deployed to enrich uranium.
“The second set of cascades is operational ... my understanding is they are both operational and (have) no problems,” the diplomat said, according to Reuters.
Another diplomat accredited to the IAEA also painted a picture of expanding activity at Fordow, without giving details.
Neither Iran nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. agency that regularly inspects Iranian nuclear sites including Fordow, was immediately available for comment.
Fordow enrichment plant
Iran said last year that it would transfer its highest-grade uranium refinement work to Fordow from its main enrichment plant at Natanz, and sharply boost capacity.
The decision to move work which the U.N. Security Council has called on Iran to suspend to an underground facility could further complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff peacefully.
The United States and its allies say Iran is trying to develop the means to make atomic bombs, but Tehran insists its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity and isotopes for medical treatment.
President Barack Obama tightened sanctions on Iran another notch, the White House said on Monday, targeting its central bank and giving U.S. banks new powers to freeze assets linked to the government.
Iran two years ago started refining uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at Natanz -- far more than the 3.5 percent level usually required to power nuclear energy plants.
Tehran says it will use 20 percent-enriched uranium to convert into fuel for a research reactor making isotopes to treat cancer patients, but Western officials say they doubt that the country has the technical capability to do that.
In addition, they say, Fordow’s capacity -- a maximum of 3,000 centrifuges -- is too small to produce the fuel needed for nuclear power plants, but ideal for yielding smaller amounts of high-enriched product typical of a nuclear weapons program.
Nuclear bombs require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but Western experts say much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20 percent purity, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons “break-out”.
They give different estimates of how quickly Iran could assemble a nuclear weapon -- ranging from as little as six months to a year or more.
Western officials believe Iran has not yet decided whether it will indeed “weaponize’ enrichment, but rather is seeking now solely to establish the industrial and scientific capacity to do so if needed for military and security contingencies.
Iran disclosed the existence of Fordow to the IAEA only in September 2009 after learning that Western intelligence agencies had detected it.
With beach landings, 25 naval ships and an air assault, the United States and eight other countries are staging a major amphibious exercise on the U.S. East Coast this week, according to AFP, fighting a fictional enemy that bears more than a passing resemblance to Iran.
After a decade dominated by ground wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drill dubbed Bold Alligator is “the largest amphibious exercise conducted by the fleet in the last 10 years,” said Admiral John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
About 20,000 U.S. forces, plus hundreds of British, Dutch and French troops as well as liaison officers from Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Australia are taking part in the exercise along the Atlantic coast off Virginia and North Carolina.
But UK defense sources have revealed that the United States had only allowed a British Royal Navy frigate to join the mission following an intervention from French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Telegraph reported.
“Sources said that Philip Hammond, the [British] defense secretary, concluded that if the French were sending a ship, Britain must do so too. His decision to was then endorsed by David Cameron, the Prime Minister,” the newspaper stated.
“The disparity in vessel numbers means the British and French presence in the flotilla was of greater diplomatic than military significance,” it added.
An American aircraft carrier, amphibious assault ships, including France’s Mistral, Canadian mine sweepers and dozens of aircrafts have been deployed for the drill, which began on Jan. 30 and runs through mid-February.
Monday was “D-day” for Bold Alligator, with U.S. Marines stepping on to the beach from hovercraft, near the Camp Lejeune base in North Carolina.
The American military, mindful that Marines have spent most of their time in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan since 2001, said the goal was “to revitalize, refine, and strengthen fundamental amphibious capabilities and reinforce the Navy and Marine Corps role as ‘fighters from the sea.’”
With defense spending coming under pressure after years of unlimited growth, the Marines -- which devoted a brigade to the exercise -- also are anxious to protect funding for their traditional role as an amphibious force.
The exercise scenario takes place in a mythical region known as “Treasure Coast,” with a country called Garnet, a theocracy, invading its neighbor to the north, Amberland, which calls for international help to repel the attack.
Garnet has mined several harbors and deployed anti-ship missiles along the coast.
The threat of mines, anti-ship missiles and small boats in coastal waters conjure up Iran's naval forces, but the commanders overseeing the drill, Admiral Harvey and Marine Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, say the scenario is not based on any particular country.
Amid rising tensions with Iran and threats from Tehran to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, naval officers and military planners are keenly aware of the Islamic Republic’s arsenal of mines and anti-ship missiles.
When asked by reporters last week, Harvey acknowledged that the exercise scenario was “certainly informed by recent history” and that it was “applicable” to the Strait of Hormuz, as well as other areas.
Harvey also said the exercise incorporated lessons from the 2006 Lebanon conflict, when Iran-backed Hezbollah forces hit an Israeli navy corvette with an anti-ship missile.
The Pentagon opened the drill to allied forces for the first time this year, with 650 French troops among those participating.
In their AMX-10 wheeled reconnaissance vehicles and VAB armored personnel carriers, the mission of the French forces was “to land first to secure a path for the Americans,” said Second Lieutenant Chens Bouriche, a French military spokesman.