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Iran Buying Spree Raises Fears of Rapid Nuke Expansion...

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Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines, according to experts and diplomats, a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.

Purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago, those familiar with the effort said. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.

Although Iran has frequently sought to buy banned items from foreign vendors, this case is considered unusual because of the order’s specificity and sheer size — enough magnets in theory to outfit 50,000 new centrifuges, or nearly five times the number that Iran currently operates.

The revelation of the new orders for nuclear-sensitive parts coincides with Iran’s announcement that it plans to add thousands of more-advanced, second-generation centrifuges that would allow it to ramp up its production of enriched uranium even further, analysts said.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful and that its enrichment efforts are directed toward medical research and energy production. The disclosure of the purchase attempt comes at a time when the country is seeking to gain diplomatic leverage ahead ofnegotiations on proposed limits to its nuclear program.

The attempt, nonetheless, has fueled Western concerns that Iran is planning a major expansion in its nuclear capacity that would allow it to make atomic weapons quickly if it chooses to do so.

“They are positioning themselves to make a lot of nuclear progress quickly,” said a European diplomat with access to sensitive intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Each step forward makes the situation potentially more dangerous.”

A shrinking of Iran’s timeline for obtaining a weapons capability could increase pressure on Israel, which in recent months has appeared to ease off from threats of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In a speech Monday to American Jewish leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had not crossed the “red line” that would warrant a military strike, but he said the country’ s recent nuclear advances “shorten the time it will take them to cross that line.”

Complicating Israel’s calculus, Iran has simultaneously taken steps to ease Western anxiety over its nuclear program, chiefly by converting a portion of its uranium stockpile into a metal form that cannot be easily used to make nuclear weapons. A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed Tuesday that the conversion of some of Iran’s uranium stockpile was underway. “This work is being done,” the spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told reporters in Tehran.

A report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, due for release this week, is expected to document Iran’s seemingly contradictory moves, portraying the country as carefully avoiding provocative behavior even as it quietly prepares to increase production at its two uranium-enrichment plants. Continue reading via The Washington Post...

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