2. Iran Gains Time to Go Ahead with Its Nuclear Ambitions

The US government has reached a quiet understanding with Britain, Germany and France to delay a showdown on Iran’s uranium enrichment program and its work on a nuclear weapon until early 2004.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report the deal as being a promise from the Bush administration to refrain from military action or economic sanctions on the Islamic republic against a commitment by London, Berlin and Paris to keep the European Union from acting in any way to strengthen the Tehran government.

Our sources report the US government will readdress the issue in late January or early February. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Teheran say the Iranian leadership will do all it can to wriggle out of signing the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, a document that permits UN inspectors to make unannounced, unrestricted visits to suspect sites.

The Iranians will use the time-out to move ahead on uranium enrichment and the building of an Islamic bomb.

As Iran’s parliamentary election crisis builds up (see previous article), so too do its  nuclear problems proliferate. Leading Iranian officials are demanding retribution against the “traitors who made Iran surrender voluntarily to the United States and the West over the production of a nuclear bomb”. The radicals declare the government had no business consenting to sign the protocol or promising to suspend uranium enrichment. Iran has been led by these steps into a dangerous trap with two available options that could spell disaster for the Islamic regime.

Radicals want people’s court to punish “traitors”

Under the first no-win scenario, Iran would have to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency demands and open its facilities to international inspection that, in the words of one hardline cleric, would “desecrate the country’s holy places — including the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini – and expose Iran’s most precious military secrets to alien eyes”.

Iran would have to abandon forever its dreams of building an Islamic bomb – a project in which Iran has sunk billions of dollars over the past 18 years.

Under the second option, Iran would refuse to sign the protocol and then go forward with resumed uranium enrichment and its nuclear bomb program.

In that case, Europe would align itself with the United States and demand that the U.N. Security Council impose economic sanctions on Iran, including an embargo on its oil exports. Again, the Tehran regime, already under pressure at home from opponents itching for active outside support, would face imminent collapse as the Iranian economy tanked.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran report mounting demands in Iran for the establishment of a secret, revolutionary court to try the officials who advised the government to capitulate to Western pressure. One top Iranian has already fallen victim. Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s delegate to the IAEA, has been dismissed and replaced by a foreign ministry official. Salehi, the chief technocrat who pushed for Iran to sign the protocol and cease uranium enrichment, was widely regarded back home as particularly knowledgeable about the workings of the IAEA, and his recommendation carried significant weight.

But there’s a catch to setting up a court to make heads roll: Iran’s omnipotent spiritual leader Ali Khamenei personally entrusted the leading miscreant, the head of the national security council, Johat-Ol Eslam Hassan Rouhani, to represent Iran in negotiations with European foreign ministers and the chairman of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, on the nuclear issue. And Khamenei is above criticism in today’s Iran.

The radicals have meanwhile busied themselves with finding devices to avoid the trap and continue building the bomb. They must fend off the heavy pressure coming from ElBaradei and the European Union to sign the protocol soon. In early January, EU foreign policy executive Javier Solana is due in Tehran with a big stick. But efforts will be made to postpone signing as long as possible, perhaps even until mid-January, a week or two before the nuclear watchdog’s governing board meets in Vienna and expects action from Tehran. Iran would thus avoid censure and the risk of a losing confrontation with the Security Council.

But then, the Iranians could drag the process out for many more months, claiming legitimately that the Majlis will be dissolved in late January for a February election and ratification must await a new parliament, in which the hard-liners will hold a majority.

This will give the Islamic republic time to keep its uranium enrichment plants humming and international pressures at bay.

Some Iranian scientists maintain that Iran is no more than six months away from building a nuclear bomb. But most estimate at least 18 months. Iran will meanwhile spin out its commitments for as long as possible.

Beyond Iran’s elections, Tehran is also banking on the coming US presidential vote for salvation. They believe President George W. Bush will be too preoccupied with the crisis in Iraq and campaigning to make a military move on Iran.

The deep divisions in the Bush administration over a tough action against Iran – mainly between the State Department and Pentagon – are not lost on the ayatollahs in Tehran. The fact that Congress earmarked a paltry $1.5 million to fund Iranian opposition groups in this year’s budget was taken as a sign of Bush’s unwillingness to confront the Teheran regime. Iran hopes it can continue to dissuade Europe from aligning itself with the United States.

Blaming the EU for not making good on its promise of non-military nuclear technology will be one of the pretexts offered by Iran for reneging on its pledge to suspend uranium enrichment. However, Britain, Germany and France are obliged by their commitment to the United States to withhold the transfer until Iran signs the Additional Protocol and delivers proof of renouncing all ambitions to attain a nuclear bomb.

While the chicken-and-egg argument goes back and forth, Iran is advancing on its objective.

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