Fact Check: Israeli claims on Iran nuclear program

By Brian Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6 2013 6:49 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. Israel has led the speculation that Iran could be moving closer to having all the pieces ready for a nuclear weapon. Israel also fears the negotiations could leave intact the mainstays of Iran's nuclear network: The ability to enrich uranium and produce atomic fuel.

Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Israel's prime minister and other officials are at the forefront of claims about the extent and aims of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Benjamin Netanyahu has said his nation is ready, if necessary, to stand alone to stop any moves by Tehran toward possible nuclear weapons.

Iran has described the Israeli statements as scare-mongering that seeks to undermine nuclear talks between Tehran and six world powers, including the United States. The next round of the talks is to begin in Geneva on Thursday. Iran insists it rejects nuclear arms and only seeks reactors for energy and medical applications.

Israel has led the speculation that Iran could be moving closer to having all the pieces ready for a nuclear weapon. Israel also fears the negotiations could leave intact the mainstays of Iran's nuclear network: The ability to enrich uranium and produce atomic fuel.

Some of Israel's claims are based on clear evidence — number of Iran's enrichment centrifuges, for example — but context and elaboration is often needed for a more complete picture.

CLAIM: At an Oct. 27 meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, Netanyahu said "improvements" in Iran's nuclear program over the past year would allow it push past the "barrier" of 20 percent enriched uranium — the highest level acknowledged by Iran — to reach 90 percent enrichment within "weeks at most." Uranium at 90 percent enrichment is close to weapons grade.

DETAILS: Netanyahu may be talking about the amount of 20 percent material now on hand. This is close to 200 kilograms (440 pounds). Experts say 250 kilograms (550 pounds) would be needed to produce a single bomb by enriching that amount to above 90 percent. There is significant debate over a possible timetable, but many experts say it could be several months or longer, based on the hypothetical scenario that Iran would move ahead with higher enrichment.

Netanyahu also could be referring to the number of centrifuges installed over the past year or upgrades that allow faster production of enriched uranium. Except for a test station, however, none of the new generation machines are running.

CLAIM: At the same Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said Iran's planned heavy water reactor in the city of Arak has "no connection with energy for peace, but only for nuclear weapons."

DETAILS: The heavy water reactor — currently under construction in central Iran — uses a molecular variant of water as a coolant and can use natural, non-enriched uranium as a fuel. Such reactors produce a higher amount of plutonium as a byproduct. The plutonium can be reused in nuclear weapons production, but needs a special extraction and enrichment process that Iran currently does not possess. Iran has not released details on its plans for plutonium, but said the reactor's main purpose is to produce isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical uses. Iran has said it will allow 24-hour video surveillance at the reactor by the U.N.'s nuclear agency. Similar round-the-clock monitoring is in place at other enrichment and nuclear sites.

CLAIM: Israel's Security Cabinet said on Oct. 15 that Iran has "systematically defied" U.N. Security Council resolutions to halt uranium enrichment.

DETAILS: The U.N. Security Council in July 2006 passed the first in a series of resolutions demanding Iran halt its uranium enrichment program. Iran dismissed the resolution and moved ahead with advances in enrichment, as well as the then-secret construction of a new and fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain south of Tehran.

The U.N. measure was taken after concluding that the U.N.'s nuclear agency — the International Atomic Energy Agency — did not have enough information from Tehran on whether its nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes. The vote opened the way for much tighter sanctions on Iran. Although the provisions of the Security Council resolution remain in place, nuclear negotiators from the U.S. and allies appear to have backed off demands that Iran halt its enrichment efforts. Discussion at the talks has shifted to possibly allowing enrichment — with strict U.N. monitoring — at lower levels need for peaceful reactors.

Iran insists it has the "right" to uranium enrichment because it has signed the U.N.'s Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which oversees the spread of nuclear technology. Israel, which is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal, has not signed the NPT.

CLAIM: The Israeli Security Cabinet statement said Iran has increased the number of centrifuges used in enrichment from 164 in 2006 to more than 18,000.

DETAILS: This is correct but not all are active. Of those 18,000 installed, Iran currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges, which convert uranium feed stock into nuclear fuel.

CLAIM: The Israeli statement notes that Iran's advances in the technology needed to create nuclear fuel mean that Tehran is also "able to produce nuclear weapons."

DETAILS: While technically true, this would apply to at least five countries that enrich uranium but do not have their own nuclear arsenal. The list includes Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

CLAIM: In remarks at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Oct. 6, Netanyahu said that "16 countries produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without even one centrifuge," suggesting those countries obtain nuclear fuel abroad.

DETAILS: The number is correct. The list spans the globe including Canada, Belgium and South Africa.

CLAIM: In an Oct. 3 interview with Univision, Netanyahu said Iran has "missiles that can reach Israel" and was "building these long-range intercontinental missiles to reach the United States."

DETAILS: Iran has claimed its Shahab-3 missile has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), which covers much of the Middle East, including Israel. Iran's aerospace program has reported the launch of satellites and animals to outside earth's atmosphere. This has raised concerns in the West that the same technology could be used to develop an intercontinental arsenal.

Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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