Mike Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu escalate pressure on EU to scrap Iran nuclear pact; Israeli PM accuses Tehran of violating NPT

The New York Times

Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Thursday that the International Atomic Energy Agency had validated his long-standing allegation that Iran has been maintaining a secret nuclear site in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty €" a claim that the agency did not publicly confirm.

Netanyahu's assertion came as the Vienna-based agency held a closed-door meeting Thursday about questions concerning Iran's "safeguard declarations" but did not specify more precisely what had been discussed.

The Israeli leader spoke hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while visiting Europe, accused Iran of "nuclear extortion" by having accelerated its ability to develop a nuclear weapon in a shortened time frame.

The statements from Netanyahu and Pompeo, both avowed critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, appeared aimed at escalating the pressure on the Europeans to abandon the accord instead of scrambling to salvage it, as they have been doing since President Donald Trump formally withdrew last year and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.

"The IAEA now confirms that Iran lied. And that Iran continues to lie," Netanyahu said. "Europe must stop stalling," he added. "It must act against Iranian aggression now."

Netanyahu was referring to a site in Turquzabad, south of Tehran, where, in a speech at the United Nations in September 2018, he charged that Iran had been storing "massive amounts" of nuclear equipment and material. He said then that Israel had shared that information with the agency's inspectors.

Providing further details, Israeli intelligence and national security officials contended late Thursday that the atomic agency's inspections earlier this year, including analysis of samples taken from the site, had shown that Iran stored nuclear material at the Turquzabad site that had been converted from raw uranium but not yet enriched. The Israelis also said the material's characteristics and age did not correspond with any nuclear facility previously disclosed by Iran.

In other words, the Israeli officials said, the inspection pointed to the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear conversion facility, which if confirmed amounted to a fresh violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's safeguards agreement.

The Israeli officials briefed international journalists on the condition that their names, titles and agencies not be published.

Echoing the prime minister, the Israeli officials expressed hope that what they described as the new finding would help persuade the international community €" and in particular Germany, France and Britain, along with the broader European Union €" to abandon hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, and join with the United States in its "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign against Iran.

Earlier Thursday, Pompeo said Iran was moving toward being able to develop a nuclear weapon in a short time frame, asserting that Iran's behaviour should inspire "all nations" to increase pressure.

But he made no threat of military action. Nor did the Israelis, though they considered striking Iran's facilities several times before the 2015 nuclear accord had been reached under the Barack Obama administration. In response to Trump's abandonment of the accord, the Iranians began edging out of its restrictions earlier this year, saying they would not remain in compliance while the United States was violating its terms by reimposing sanctions.

Iran said this week that it had increased its supply of advanced centrifuges and reactivated a much larger number of old centrifuges that had been idle, accelerating its ability to produce enough nuclear material to make a bomb. The addition of centrifuges is among several steps Iran has taken in recent months to ratchet up pressure on the West in response to Trump's decision to exit the 2015 nuclear agreement and reimpose sanctions.

In a statement released by the State Department, Pompeo said Iran's actions amounted to "nuclear extortion" and were designed to intimidate the world into accepting its sponsorship of violent insurgencies and terrorism. Pompeo was in Germany for meetings with government officials.

The moves raise "concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout", Pompeo said, meaning a rush to develop a nuclear bomb. He added: "The United States will never allow this to happen."

There was no immediate response from the government of Iran, which has denied having any ambition to be a nuclear power. Experts say that Iran has not yet come near the level of uranium enrichment needed for a weapon, but some Western analysts say that if it attempted a "breakout", Iran could develop a bomb in less than a year.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's closed-door meeting Thursday to discuss Iran followed a recent move by Iranian authorities to prevent an agency inspector from entering its main nuclear facility at Natanz. She was briefly detained.

After the meeting, an agency spokesman, Fredrik Dahl, said that top officials had discussed "questions related to the completeness of Iran's safeguards declarations", the commitments that nations make to the agency to ensure that nuclear material intended for peaceful uses is not diverted to weapons.

The agency did not announce any actions.

Under the nuclear agreement signed in 2015, Iran agreed to limit the size and scope of its uranium enrichment, in return for relief from damaging economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Trump withdrew the United States from that pact last year and reimposed sanctions. Administration officials say the measures are intended to pressure Tehran to agree to stricter limits and cut off its support for militia groups around the Middle East.

Iran has responded with its own pressure campaign, deliberately going beyond the limits imposed by the 2015 deal as it pushes for relief from the sanctions.

Pompeo landed in Germany on Wednesday for a two-day trip commemorating 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and, with it, the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe into the communist east and democratic west.

As a US soldier, Pompeo was posted in 1986 to a base in Bindlach, Bavaria, where he was focused on securing the borders with what was then East Germany and Czechoslovakia. That base closed in the 1990s when the United States drew down its troop strength after German reunification.

He met Thursday with German and American veterans who served at the same time. He also toured a village known as Little Berlin, which once straddled the border.

Later Thursday, he travelled to Leipzig to meet with Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, and tour the St Nicholas church, where East Germans held mass demonstrations calling for democratic reforms in 1989.

American-German relations have been strained under Trump, who has frequently criticised Chancellor Angela Merkel and her policies on immigration, climate change and Iran. On Friday, Pompeo is to meet in Berlin with Merkel and her ministers of defence and finance.

David M Halbfinger and Richard Pérez-Peña c.2019 The New York Times Company

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