1. Nuke Program: When Tehran’s Yes Means No

The ever-resourceful Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is still confident he can press on with his prohibited nuclear weapons program while avoiding the international community’s stepped up scrutiny and pressure.

He therefore called his top advisers into an urgent planning session to forestall any decisions reached at the three-day meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board beginning on September 8 in Vienna set to consider how to handle Tehran’s violations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The United States is pushing for an IAEA decision that would precipitate UN sanctions, accusing Tehran on Tuesday, September 9, of non-compliance with its treaty obligations and demanding that the international nuclear give Iran one last chance to prove by October 31 that it was not engaged in covert nuclear weapons production.

The most recent confidential IAEA report to the board noted traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium found at the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals those traces were betrayed by the presence of used Pakistani centrifuges which were shipped to Iran in a hurry before they were first decontaminated in Pakistan.

The discovery confirms previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly disclosures that Pakistani equipment and nuclear scientists are involved in Iran’s nuclear technology program.

Yet Iran’s clerical leaders believe the IAEA board will avoid a tough resolution leading to sanctions and instead leave them enough leeway to avoid a crisis. To play for time, Iranian officials are suggesting Tehran might after all sign the Additional Protocol empowering UN inspectors to carry out snap inspections of suspect sites in Iran.

And that’s where things will start to get interesting.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources, Khamenei and his team have come up with a new plan to fool the world. Tehran will announce its consent to sign the Additional Protocol – in principle. However, talks on the issue will be delayed for month after month. Once started, Iranian procrastination will keep a resolution of the crisis up in the air. In the meantime, Tehran will demand its “flexibility” be rewarded by IAEA approval for technology transfers to be made for its “peaceful” nuclear energy projects.

Eventually, the Additional Protocol will get signed. But that won’t be the end of it. A whole host of Iranian bureaucratic and elected institutions, such as the all-powerful, Khamenei-ruled Council of Guardians, will be required to ratify the signature before it takes effect. There, further delays can easily be engineered before impatient international warnings force endorsement.

Even then, Khamenei holds one last trump. He will declare that because of the paramount national importance of the nuclear issue, final approval must come from himself, the supreme national spiritual ruler of Iran, whom no one in the country will dare rush.

By these tricks and stratagems, Iranian rulers believe they can gain two years’ grace before being forced to open up to unscheduled, unfettered international inspections. That will be time enough to manufacture a “primitive” nuclear bomb.

During that period, crises in Iraq may well keep the Americans focused on their other troubles, leaving Tehran free to spring their nuclear bomb on the world.

ElBaradei – more friend than foe

Iran’s representative at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, Ali Akbar Salehi, suggests in his reports home that IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei remains true to the promises of a non-confrontational approach on Iranian nuclear violations given during his last visit to Iran some two months ago. In his opening remarks to the board meeting, ElBaradei commended increased Iranian cooperation adding that not enough information had been provided to determine the nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.

During that visit, Iranian leaders pulled out all stops. They lectured the Muslim ElBaradei on the importance of a world revival of the great Islamic religion. Without mentioning nuclear bombs, they insisted that the Islamic republic required advanced technology to keep pace with the West. The ayatollahs even hinted at material rewards should the top UN nuclear inspector perform a high service to his faith, encouraged to be forthcoming by ElBaradei’s watered down and evasive reporting on his previous visits of inspection to Iran.

When ElBaradei explained he cannot dictate to IAEA inspectors what to put in their reports, he was reminded by Iranian officials that he was responsible for editing and shaping the final version.

Iran is not alone in its nuclear corner. Russia, a key sponsor of Iran’s nuclear program, has promised to prevent the IAEA passing a resolution with a bite, if Tehran was willing to sign the Additional Protocol. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say that is Tehran's take on Moscow's attitude; Washington sees it differently. The Bush administration is also applying heavy pressure on India to support a tough stand against Iran. This issue was at the center of Ariel Sharon’s talks in New Delhi this week with Atali Bihar Vajpayee.

Iran has been lobbying 15 of the 35 states who are IAEA board members. France has naturally been the most forthcoming, promising to look out for Iran’s interests – in return for certain secret profitable business deals that include the purchase of French nuclear equipment and continued cooperation with French companies in developing Iranian oil fields.

Tehran was bucked up by Washington’s decision in advance of the IAEA session to refrain from pressing for outright censure of Iran, as a victory for its quiet diplomacy with the other member states. But that apparent American flexibility was only tactical. US allies Canada and Britain have been rounding up support among fellow board members for a resolution requiring Iran to address the open questions in the IAEA report and come fully clean on its nuclear activity.

How long before point of no-return?

Anxious for a clear answer, Khamenei this week summoned all 37 top nuclear experts heading the different projects at Natanz, Arak, Esfahan and Kashan, together with Iran’s atomic energy commission director, Gholam-reza Aghazadeh. He demanded a timeline for the nuclear weapons program to reach its point of no return, namely, one stage before the assembly of a nuclear bomb. He was told by the scientists that testing of the centrifuges in Natanz will be completed within months and uranium enrichment can begin as soon as December. An enrichment level of 70 percent or more would then be just a few months away, enabling Iran to build a “primitive” bomb similar to the one Tehran believes North Korea possesses.

Iran is banking on Washington applying similar cautiousness towards its nuclear projects as it has adopted towards North Korea.

In secret contacts with members of the IAEA board, Iranian diplomats have spread assurances that there is no real cause for concern. Tehran would sign the Additional Protocol as soon as potential critics and local public opinion were prepared for what appear to be a capitulation to foreign demands. While this could delay signature by months, the Iranians asked the board not to allow its deliberations to be turned into a political debate so as not to stir up opposition at home.

On the domestic front, Khamenei has directed official spokesmen to refer to the national Iranian program as a source of electrical power – not bombs, even noting that the Koran forbids weapons of mass destruction. However, judging from the op-ed columns of at least three Tehran newspapers, Kayhan, Resalat and Hohouri-e Eslami, hardliner sentiment is flatly opposed to the signing of the Additional Protocol, urging their government to follow North Korea’s example of flouting the world and withdrawing from the international non-proliferation treaty.

Hossein Shariat-Madari, editor of Kayhan, wrote that no power in the world has the right to tell the Islamic Republic how to defend itself and its citizens, a view echoed by Resalat editor Morteza Nabavi.

Reformist opinion on the other hand urges the clerical government not to declare war on the international community and play into America’s hands, but to sign the supplementary document.

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