About a week ago, Iran secretly deployed four divisions along its southern border with Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report. They are spearheaded by the Zahra Division, named for the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter whom Shiite Muslims revere. This division is generally regarded as the most powerful and effective fighting force boasted by both the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards.
Our sources interpret the buildup as a threat to Washington of military retaliation against southern Iraq should the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors adopt the tough Anglo-French-German condemnation of Tehran’s nuclear program for submission to the UN Security Council. Thursday night, June 17, the censure resolution was submitted to the board meeting in Vienna after even the mild IAEA director, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, was forced to admit in his report that Iran’s cooperation was “less than satisfactory.”
Iran has poised the four divisions as a backstop for the 12,000 to 15,000 Revolutionary Guards troops already present under cover inside Iraq. According to our military sources, the Iranians have strung their troop divisions along a line stretching from Dezful, opposite the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra, to Shalamcheh in western Iran, opposite the Iraqi city of al-Amara.
The first hypothesis was that the Iranian troop concentration was meant as a deterrent against US forces going all the way against Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi army militia. But the Iranian divisions remained in position even after the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq informed Tehran that Sadr did not stand a chance against the US military in the Shiite holy cities of Iraq and Iran would be wise to stay clear of the conflict.
After that there was no room for doubt. The Iranian show of strength was an escalated gesture of defiance over its nuclear program.
To drive this home, Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s research center for theoretical physics, accused the US, ElBaradei and “the Zionist regime” of burying the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In an interview with the official Fars News Agency Wednesday, June 16, Larijani declared the treaty, which Iran had signed, invalid.
Iran is again shopping for tens of thousands of P-2 uranium enrichment centrifuges or parts for their assembly in Iran, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources citing intelligence reaching the West in the past few days. They say that a number of Revolutionary Guards bases across Iran, mainly facilities near Isfahan, Shiraz, Kashan, Arak and even Ahvaz in Khuzestan province near the border with Iraq, have been converted as plants for the assembly of centrifuges. In addition, uranium enrichment facilities – with centrifuges working around the clock – have been set up at top speed at several other Revolutionary Guards bases.
Their locations are not known to IAEA inspectors notwithstanding their 65 inspection tours in Iran in the past year. ElBaradei’s complaint of insufficient Iranian cooperation was therefore a mild term for Iran’s brazen deception tactics.
One such tactic is to play games with UN inspectors. In three instances, “informers” leaked the addresses of military bases near Tehran where banned nuclear activity was in progress. Snap inspections yielded nothing.
To keep the heat up on the West, Iran recently broadcast a scary disclosure claiming special suicide units had been created to strike US forces in Iraq, mount attacks in Israel and even to revive Khomeini’s death edict against Salman Rushdie, the British Muslim author of “The Satanic Verses”. One of these suicide units was said to be on its way to the Iraqi border.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, a strong advocate of Iran assuming the “role of the bad guy”, silences any critics who warn him against turning the whole world against the Islamic republic.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “If Iran is pushed into a corner before it achieves its nuclear objective, it still owns a deadly weapon, the ability to blockade the Straits of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic sailing through the Persian Gulf by sinking a single ship.”
The spiritual ruler rebuked former intelligence minister, Hojjat-ol Eslam Dorri Najaf Abadi, for declaring this week: “The United States and Europe should know that Iran has already joined the nuclear club.” The official line remains that while Iran is engaged in a crash program to develop nuclear weapons and its spokesmen lavish a mixture of paranoid boasts and threats on the outside world, the policy of concealment must be sustained.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran watchers are convinced that Abadi overstated the case. Iran has achieved uranium enrichment of 65 percent, but still lacks sufficient weapons-grade material to build a number of nuclear bombs. Experts believe that, unless stalled by international curbs, Tehran will be able to assemble its first, albeit small, atomic bomb in the fall of 2005. Before then, Iran might reach the stage of being able to construct a nuclear bomb-in-a-suitcase or a “dirty (radiological) bomb” for al Qaeda or one of its own suicide units.
Iran’s powerful former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, spoke this week of a “satanic” US plot against Iran. Khamenei’s chief of staff, Hojjat-ol Eslam Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, was more belligerent. “There are those who fear we cannot confront the United States. They are very wrong,” he said.
Mohammadi Golpayegani’s threatening tone caps comments made by Dr. Hassan Abbassi, head of the state-run Strategic Research Center in Teheran, who last week warned that Iran maintains agents and suicide operatives across the world and is armed with an abundance of detailed data for the use of terrorist groups everywhere on the precise points of highest US vulnerability to attack.
Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi also got into the act, vowing that Iran would never give up its right to enrich uranium.
Several Third World countries, members of the 35-nation UN nuclear watchdog agency, pressured the United States, Britain, France and Germany to tone down their censure of Iran. This did not happen, but the board of governors is likely to give Iran several more months to respond, which suits Washington. The Bush administration wants any showdown with Iran, including a UN Security Council debate on possible sanctions, deferred until after the November 4 presidential election. In any case, IAEA experts in Vienna need two or three months to analyze the samples inspectors brought back from suspect sites in Iran.
The Bush administration believes that over the next three months, its position in Iraq will become more secure. Taking the optimistic view, the interim government in Baghdad should have stabilized and assumed most of the administrative and policing tasks now borne by US personnel. Washington will then be freer to take Tehran on at the Security Council. But it is racing the clock against Iran’s determination to produce the first Islamic nuclear bomb.