An eerie silence surrounds the direct US-Iranian negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Washington sources report exclusively are scheduled to begin Saturday, Dec. 1.
So loaded is the atmosphere between Washington and Tehran, that 24 hours before their encounter, no one has yet revealed its venue or the ranks of the negotiators taking part.
Late Thursday, Nov. 29, the United States finally provided a glimpse of America’s opening stance by setting a March deadline for Iran to start cooperating in substance with a UN nuclear agency investigation.
The US delegate to the nuclear agency, Robert Wood, said: “If by March, Iran has not begun substantive cooperation with the IAEA, the United States … would urge the board to consider reporting this lack of progress to the UN Security Council."
"Iran cannot be allowed to indefinitely ignore its obligations … Iran must act now, in substance."
Tehran was thus put on notice that it had three months to produce substantial progress in its forthcoming talks with Washington – progress in this case meaning a total halt in Iran’s nuclear weapons program which is already dangerously close to fruition.
Apart from that glimpse, all our sources have reliably learned is that President Barack Obama and Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not be pairing up for the negotiations starting Saturday; nor will US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
The Obama administration has prepared a fallback strategy in case these talks dead-end too.
The office of European Union foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton announced Wednesday, Nov. 28, that senior officials of the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany), the world powers which held several rounds of unproductive nuclear talks with Iran, had “committed to having another round of talks with Iran as soon as possible.”
US military deployment held ready to strike Iran
As we reported in recent issues, the Obama administration has taken a number of tough steps in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in anticipation of its face-to-face with Iran.
Most significantly, in September, the Pentagon and the US Army completed the deployment of US military strength ready to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in case the talks lead nowhere.
A part of these preparations was the large-scale, three-week US-Israeli anti-missile drill, Austere Challenge 2012, held in real battle conditions from late October through the first half of November.
Multi-front engagement scenarios mustering thousands of US and Israeli troops were staged in the closing days of the biennial drill
Because the Palestinian missile assault on southern Israel built up at the same time, operators and joint task force commanders from US European Command (EUCOM) had a chance to witness live at least four operational intercepts by the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system.
The day the drill culminated on Nov. 12 – with live fire from US Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (Pac-3) missiles – they also had the chance to witness Palestinians firing more than 120 rockets — including extended-range Grads — at the Israeli home front, sending hundreds of thousands of people within 40 kilometers of the border running to shelters.
No Iranian response for its allies’ reverses
The day after the joint US-Israeli drill wound up – and not by chance – Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, an intensive air force offensive aimed most immediately at cutting down the rocket and missile blitz from the Gaza Strip holding its towns hostage.
When the eight-day operation ended in a ceasefire, it was seen to have given birth to a new anti-Iran, anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim Middle East bloc which emerged from the thunder and violence. Made up of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, this grouping had evidently been in on Israel’s military action and would now win access to Israeli Middle East intelligence via the US.
Further north, in Syria and Lebanon, US military backing for the Syrian rebels began squeezing the power centers of Bashar Assad’s regime and Hassan Nasrallah’s Hizballah, the two main arms of Iran’s Middle East set-up.
(See a separate article in this issue about the US role in the Syrian war).
In the face of this onslaught on its allies, Tehran’s outward responses were initially hesitant, indecisive and feeble – even though Assad, its foremost ally, started looking shaky. Neither Tehran nor the Lebanese Hizballah stepped in to counter the Palestinian Hamas’s abrupt removal from its place inside the Iranian orbit and adoption by the new pro-US Sunni grouping.
No slackening in Iranian nuclear work
Tehran’s only response was indirect. Shortly before the talks with the United States were due to start, a message was received in Washington that an undefined part of Iran’s 20-percent enriched uranium was to be converted to metallic fuel. US intelligence had confirmed Iranian preparations for this process, which the Obama administration treated as auguring Iranian flexibility in the coming talks – when Tehran typically reversed itself.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, declared uranium enrichment would continue “with intensity” and the number of centrifuges used to make nuclear fuel sharply increased – in direct defiance of Western demands.
The Obama administration cannot be sure what December surprises, the Iranians may have up their sleeves before and during the talks and are especially worried by the almost total passivity of Syria and the Hizballah.
In one sphere, the Iranians have proved unstoppable. For the past decade, they have never for a moment slowed down the momentum of their military nuclear program and are still going strong. Although there are no indications of a last-minute spurt in areas susceptible to restrictions coming out of negotiations, neither is there any slackening of the work rhythm.
Advanced weaponizing work apace in many fields
Monday, November 26, the US administration officials concerned in the confidential contacts leading to the negotiations brought President Obama at the White House a special presentation drawn up by a team of senior US intelligence officials and nuclear scientists. Its purpose was to show where Iran’s nuclear program stands at present and offer a timeline for its attainment of a nuclear weapon.
The main points of this presentation are published here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
The experts’ most important conclusion was that Iran will most likely approach HEU “break-out” capability by the summer of 2013.
They also gathered from the latest International Atomic Energy Agency reports new information about military-related institutions (connected to the nuclear program) and found that their workshops are producing nuclear equipment and nuclear and raw materials. They also show Iranian institutes working on nuclear weapon design and the development of missile reentry vehicles.
According to the presentation to the US president, the Iranians are doing advanced work on initiators.
An initiator is a device that produces a burst of neutrons to kick-start a chain reaction when a nuclear device goes critical. Initiator design continued in Iran until recently.
The experts also reported other work being done on high explosive lenses. Shaped charges made of high explosives are used to compress high-enriched uranium into a critical mass. High explosive experiments include a hemisphere.
Having come so close to a nuke, Iran will not be put off now
The Iranians are doing work according to an advanced design from AQK – Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani atomic bomb who ran a nuclear black market ring for years.
In the course of the White House conference, the Associated Press published an undated diagram received from officials of an unnamed “country critical of Iran’s atomic program” containing calculations of the explosive force of a nuclear weapon – a key step in its development.
The diagram shows a bell curve and has variables of time in micro-seconds and power and energy, both in kilotons – the traditional measurement of the energy output, and hence the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The diagram was interpreted as indicating that Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon producing more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
All of this information points in one direction – the Iranians exploited the first four years of Obama's tenure to complete the construction of a powerful nuclear weapon. The odds that Obama and the US will succeed in getting this program dismantled or suspended by means of one-on-one negotiations are very slim.