Does Iran’s Plutonium Track Narrow US-Israeli Targets?

Wednesday, Nov. 11, debkafile reported Israel’s military intelligence director Brig. Yossi Baidatz put his revised dateline for Iran to attain a nuclear bomb before the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee.

It was late 2009, whereas the previous estimate was 2010 or 2011.

This reassessment is based on conclusions reached by American nuclear and intelligence experts after examining new input on the subject. The Israel raid of Syria’s nuclear installation carried out on Sept. 6 made available reactor components, equipment, nuclear materials and other hitherto unobtainable information.

The Americans calculated from the state of Syria’s progress in setting up a reactor for producing radioactive weapons based on plutonium with North Korean help that Iran must have reached this capability at least eighteen months earlier. Indeed, Iran is strongly suspected now of opting for the fast track of plutonium for a nuclear weapon, including “dirty bombs,” alongside the more complicated and lengthy uranium enrichment method for producing weapons-grade fuel.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report: This hypothesis while credible is unproven, because neither the Americans nor the Israelis have fixed on the plutonium production reactor’s location, although it cannot be far from the Arak heavy water plant in central Iran.

At the same time, US intelligence experts say the presumption is enough to fill a gap in their knowledge about the heavy water plant Tehran is building at Arak.

Until now, they were at a loss to fit the Arak plant into the puzzle of the larger nuclear weapons program. The hypothesis of a secret plutonium facility hidden somewhere in Iran fills that gap.

It looks, moreover, as though sections of the as-yet apparently unfinished Arak facility, described as being still at its experimental stage, are already secretly producing heavy water for the hidden plutonium reactor. This factors plutonium into Iran’s weapons drive as its most dynamic component.


Scrapping ambitious military plans?


The United States, the Gulf and Middle East rulers are compelled by this reappraisal of Iran’s directions and timetable to revamp their military plans. Israel’s armed forces must take into account the possible danger of a “dirty bomb” or toxic radioactive attack, whether by Iran itself or a third party, such as one of its terrorist proxies arrayed on Israel’s borders and entrusted with the weapon.

Therefore, as a result of the findings in Syria and corollary with regard to Iran, US military planners tend to scrap their more ambitious plans for knocking out Iran’s nuclear weapons installations.

Their first campaign plan, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, was to send wave upon wave of heavy bombers and missiles against the 1,200 sites scattered across Iran and reported to be elements of its nuclear program.

This plan was then expanded to encompass ground forces who would blow up secret nuclear locations and withdraw. It was revised again with the addition of targets for destruction, including Iran’s military and strategic infrastructure.

In the summer of 2007, the list of targets was narrowed to Revolutionary Guards headquarters and bases, singling out the al Qods Brigades, which run Iran’s external terrorist groups and orchestrate their operations.

The parameters have changed unrecognizably.

Our Washington sources report that America’s military leaders, led by the president, have switched and tightened their focus in accordance with the thesis that Iran is now pushing for a bomb on the plutonium track. The challenge has been reduced to two targets: the secret plutonium reactor and the Arak plant which supplies it with heavy water. By destroying them, Washington would present the clerical rulers in Tehran with an ultimatum: Give up the plutonium track for developing a weapon, or confine yourselves to uranium enrichment.

Either option would throw back Iran’s timeline for attaining a weapon capacity by three to five years – from the present estimate of late 2008 to 2012 or even 2014.


Putin’s intelligence input would be valuable


This postponement would adjourn the dangerous time zone and take it past the US presidential transition until Bush’s successor is well installed in the White House.

That was one of the factors behind the new military thinking in progress in Washington. Another was Syria’s low-key reaction to the Israeli attack deep inside its territory and, even more eloquently, Tehran’s failure to invoke its mutual defense treaty with Syria and send air and crack troops to the aid of an ally in distress.

Some US military planners deduce from Iran’s inaction in the case of Syria that its rulers may swallow hard if subjected to a limited attack, but are likely to avoid a major dustup if the attack is confined to its Arak plant and plutonium facility, whose existence is known to very few people in Iran.

In the light of this prediction, the Bush administration sees no advantage in a large-scale military offensive against Iran. Certainly a long, expensive war with heavy casualties is to be avoided if at all possible.

There are counter-arguments to this proposition: One is that a surgical operation depends entirely on US or Israeli intelligence locating the plutonium reactor’s hiding place. Both are working hard to turn up leads.

This is the point at which Putin’s assistance as a purveyor of intelligence to locate the target would be invaluable – in the same way as it was for the US-led Afghanistan invasion of 2001. (See the first article in this issue on Bush’s effort to achieve a rapprochement with Putin). The Russian ruler would also be more likely to offer passive compliance in the face of an American military operation if it was minimalist in scale.

Putin might also be helpful for the second mission confronting US and Israeli intelligence: to find out if Iran has built up stocks of radioactive bombs, devices or “dirty” warheads for missiles, locate them and destroy them.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly has outlined the new directions Washington is exploring to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. After weighing the pros and cons, the final decision will fall in the Oval Office in the light of the new intelligence in hand and the understandings reached with the Kremlin.

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