Iran has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow it to enrich uranium to 90 percent, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogey) Ya'alon (Likud) said recently, and warned that "Iran's nuclear development is clearly intended for military purposes."
The country has been enriching uranium to less than 5% for years, but it began to further enrich part of its uranium stockpile to nearly 20% as of February 2010, saying it needs the higher grade material to produce fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical radioisotopes for cancer patients. Ninety percent enrichment is an indication of weapons-grade uranium.
According to the Iranians, the 90% enriched uranium will be used as fuel for nuclear-powered submarines.
During a visit to Washington last week, Ya'alon spoke with journalists and foreign relations experts. According to reports in the U.S. media, Ya'alon learned from his discussions with experts that Turkey was "playing both sides" and secretly helping Iran avoid American and European sanctions despite being a member of NATO. Turkish companies have apparently been helping Tehran export oil financed by Turkish banks, Ya'alon said.
Meanwhile, a delegation of IAEA inspectors arrived in Iran on Sunday to discuss Tehran's nuclear program. The inspectors were met with angry demonstrators who gathered outside Tehran's airport, holding signs in favor of Iran's right to develop its nuclear program as well as pictures of Iranian nuclear scientists who were recently killed in mysterious attacks.
IAEA inspectors are also set to discuss a EU embargo on Iran's oil industry which is set to be implemented by July. Iranian lawmakers have raised the possibility of turning the tables on the EU, vowing to stop oil exports soon to "some" countries. Lawmakers were due to debate the bill on Sunday, in a move calculated to hit ailing European economies before the EU-wide ban on Iran took effect. But Iranian MPs postponed discussing the measure and instead sent it for further debate.
Iran's foreign minister expressed optimism that the visit by the U.N. inspectors would produce an understanding, despite world concerns that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.
The three-day inspection tour by the IAEA team comes during spiking tension. The West is imposing new sanctions to try to force Iran to slow or halt its nuclear program, and Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil passage, in retaliation.
Visiting Ethiopia, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to be trying to defuse the crisis.
"We are very optimistic about the mission and the outcome," Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency.
"We've always tried to put transparency as a principle in our cooperation with IAEA," Salehi said. "During this visit, the delegation has questions and the necessary answers will be given."
The findings from the visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran's ability to enrich uranium — which Washington and her allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday said Iran could have a nuclear weapon in approximately a year and could develop ways to deliver it in an additional one to two years.
In an interview on the CBS program "60 Minutes," Panetta said, "The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take [Iran] about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon."
Earlier this month, however, Panetta remarked that Iran was not building a bomb and called for continued diplomatic and economic pressure to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Panetta's remarks on CBS' "Face the Nation," which aired January 8, reflected the long-held view of the Obama administration that Iran was not yet committed to building a nuclear arsenal, only to creating the industrial and scientific capacity to allow one if its leaders to decide to take that final step.
"Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us," Panetta told "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer.
In Sunday's CBS interview, the U.S. defense secretary nevertheless reiterated U.S. President Barack Obama's commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, saying, "The United States, and the president has made this clear, does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us. And it's a red line obviously for the Israelis so we share a common goal here.
"If they proceed and we get intelligence that they're proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it," Panetta added.
Asked if a U.S. response to Iran would include military steps, Panetta said, "There are no options that are off the table."
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, released a damning report on Nov. 8 including the strongest evidence yet that Iran's nuclear program is military in nature. Iran continues to deny the findings of the IAEA report.
Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs, but claims it seeks to fuel reactors only for energy and medical research.
The IAEA team in Iran is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes. Earlier this month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country's main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.
The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts — Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa — suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.
In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival, the IAEA's Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts — who is in charge of the agency's Iran file — said he wants Tehran to "engage us on all concerns."
"So we're looking forward to the start of a dialogue," Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport. "A dialogue that is overdue since very long."
The IAEA team wants to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on a weapons program. They also plan to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits.
It is unclear how much assistance Iran will provide, but even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from Iran's frequent simple refusal to talk about them.
Iran has also accused the IAEA in the past of security leaks that expose its scientists and their families to the threat of assassination by the U.S. and Israel.