Iran's supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stepped into the nuclear controversy dividing regime leaders in Tehran into two camps: One proposed settling for producing one or two nuclear bombs as soon as possible, while its opponents held out for delaying until enough weapons-grade enriched uranium had been stocked for between six to twelve bombs or war heads.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources say that Khamenei has recently come down on the side of the latter camp, according to the best information available to US and Israeli intelligence bodies.
Those sources translate the supreme ruler's decision as meaning that Iran has postponed for two years stage one of assembling its first bomb. Instead of starting on the manufacture of one or two bombs in February 2009 and finishing by early 2010, it now appears that work on a much larger number of bombs or warheads will only begin in 2012 or 2013 and not end before early 2014.
This decision has four important repercussions:
1. The soul-searching – especially in Israel – over a military strike to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities becomes much less pressing.
2. The incoming US president Barack Obama wins a two-year grace period for making up his mind about how to tackle the Iranian nuclear menace. He gains time to try and persuade Tehran to abandon its A-bomb project.
3. Once Iran's nuclear arsenal contains 8-12 bombs, its dismantlement will be off the table: The Islamic Republic will never give up strutting across the Middle East as the sole regional nuclear power.
4. By stockpiling high-grade enriched uranium, Tehran retains the option of switching over to bomb manufacture at any time.
The trigger might be a change in national leadership.
First develop a flock of missiles for delivering the nukes
The all-powerful Ayatollah Khamenei, for instance, is a sick man and he might go at any time; his exit could deposit decision-making in unpredictable hands. A new leader might want to demonstrate his grip on power by going for a nuclear test.
The motives behind the supreme ruler's decision to hold off on the final step towards the bomb are therefore highly relevant:
First, one or two bombs would not be enough to deter the US or Israel from attacking Iran.
Second, neither would they be enough to create a balance of terror with Israel, which is believed by foreign sources to have several hundred nuclear warheads in its armory, and certainly not against the United States.
Third, he saw no point in having the bomb before completing development of the Sanjil solid propellant ballistic missile, which is far more precise than the Shehabs as a vehicle of delivery.
Iran successfully tested this new generation of missiles for the first time on Dec. 12, 2008.
Fourth, the number of missiles available in the short term figured large in Khamenei's calculations.
The chance of a small number of missiles armed with nuclear or chemical warheads reaching Israel would be zero. They would be intercepted by Israel's defense systems before entering its air space. On the other hand, if a flock of dozens of Shehab and Sanjil missiles were launched, only two or three armed with nuclear warheads, one might make it and blow up a major target in central Israel.
The supreme ruler preferred the Islamic republic to hold its hand until the prospect of a mortal blow to Israel became feasible.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that US and Israeli intelligence analysts interpret Tehran's purchase of the Russian S-300 long-range missile defense systems for its nuclear sites as a pointer to this postponement: This weapon is both highly sophisticated and expensive. Had Iran opted for the fast track for building just a bomb or two, it would not have had cash to spare for diverting to this purchase.