The Envoy
  • Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touring Tehran's research reactor Feb. 15, 2012. (AFP/Getty)A new UN atomic watchdog agency report raises concerns about Iran's rapid expansion of enrichment activities, as well as its continued foot-dragging in refusing to answer questions about suspected military dimensions of its nuclear program. But the new assessment also hinted at possible technical problems Iran is experiencing, nuclear experts said.

    The 11-page report (.pdf), issued by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Friday, comes as the international community is considering how to respond to Iran's expressed readiness to resume negotiations on its nuclear program. It also comes on the heels of the IAEA's complaints over being denied a visit to the Parchin military base on a two-day visit to Iran this week. Agency inspectors want to determine if a building on the site was used to carry out tests of an explosive device.

    The agency's latest report shows that Iran has rapidly expanded the number of centrifuges installed at its main Natanz uranium enrichment facility, reaching 9,000 today compared to 6,000 last fall. (It's not clear that all of the installed machines are operating, however, the agency said.) Still, the assessment offers hints that Iran is having trouble with its more advanced centrifuges. Nuclear experts speculated that because of international sanctions Iran may be having trouble procuring the steel needed for the more advanced centrifuge models.

    In the meantime, nuclear experts are puzzled and troubled by aspects of Iran's behavior at a more sensitive nuclear enrichment site: the Fordow facility built deep in a mountain near Qom, which is considered less vulnerable to possible military strikes.

    Among the concerns for nuclear watchdogs, Iran has repeatedly changed its declared work plan for the facility, which Iran did not disclose until the international community detected it in 2009.

    "The sheer fact they keep changing it raises questions about why it was originally built," Paul Brannan, an Iran nuclear expert with the Institute for Science and International Security, told Yahoo News in an interview Friday.

    While Iran has placed the outer casings of 2,000 older-generation centrifuges at the Fordow site, according to the new IAEA report, it has not installed the actual machines. Brannan said he found that behavior "strange."

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  • As diplomats from some seventy nations huddled in Tunisia Friday to discuss the Syrian crisis, they had two objectives: to demand an immediate cessation of violence in Syria and to call on authorities in that country to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to cities under siege from Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

    A draft communique from the so-called Friends of Syria would also move towards recognizing the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, according to Reuters.

    The 'Friends'—a group of Arab and European states, the United States and Turkey—are mulling whether to direct the United Nations to prepare a possible peacekeeping mission to enter Syria after a cessation of hostilities, the Associated Press reported. An American official attending the conference confirmed the proposal to Yahoo, but said the peacekeeping mission would only enter Syria after the violence ends under a UN "chapter 6" resolution, with the consent of the Syrian government.

    Almost 7,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the regime's assault against the 11-month uprising.

    But the efforts of the group are also meant to signal that Assad is headed for the fate of the region's fallen dictators. That message, the group hopes, will prompt more members of his regime and security forces to defect.

    "It is clear to me there will be a breaking point," Hillary Clinton told journalists in London Thursday. "I wish it would be sooner, so that more lives would be saved, than later, but I have absolutely no doubt there will be such a breaking point."

    Read More »from ‘Friends of Syria’ mull UN peacekeeping mission during conference on crisis
  • The "highest levels" of the Syrian regime are responsible for "widespread and systematic" human rights violations in Syria, a special United Nations-backed panel reported Thursday. It's the first sign that members of the Bashar al-Assad regime might eventually be held accountable for war crimes.

    "The widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Syria could not have happened without the consent of the highest ranking State officials," Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN-backed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said at a Geneva press conference Thursday. "The  State of Syria is responsible for these violations and bears the duty to ensure that the perpetrators are punished and that the victims receive reparations."

    The UN Human Rights Council established the independent Syria commission in August, charging it with the mandate "to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria since March 2011 ...[and] to identify those responsible," a UN summary of the panel's press conference Thursday said.

    As part of its fact-finding, the commission interviewed some 223 witnesses and victims of the Assad regime's brutal crackdown. Over 6,000 people are reported to have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria last March. The most intense violence has recently taken place in the Syrian city of Homs, where Syrian security forces are accused of indiscriminate shelling, having killed journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik on Wednesday.

    "We have identified patterns of human rights violations by Syria's army and security forces," Pinheiro, a Brazilian national, said, adding that Syrian security forces had used excessive force, arbitrary shelling, murder, torture, and rape to try to suppress protests in cities around the country of some 22 million people.

    Read More »from ‘Highest levels’ of Syrian regime responsible for systematic abuses, UN panel finds

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