It was no secret. A year ago, on Feb. 4, 2008, when Tehran launched its Safir-1 rocket, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated Iran would launch its first satellite into orbit naming it as Omid (Hope) in March 2009. Yet its launch Tuesday, Feb. 3, caught everyone by surprise – US and Israeli intelligence as well as the new Barack Obama administration.
The most surprising aspect of this reaction is that it is repetitive. Every Iranian technological leap forward is a source of amazement to the Islamic Republic's adversaries. By a curious process of doublethink, Western and Israeli officialdom tune out of their consciousness Tehran's frank avowals of its nuclear and missile plans.
They are always taken unawares.
Iranian official spokesmen shout from their dome-tops that they will never give up uranium enrichment regardless of sanctions, incentives or creative diplomatic cajoling. But the six powers, which met in Frankfurt on February 4, remain deaf.
And when it comes to developing nuclear-capable missiles – especially the Safir and Sajil series – Tehran's actions speak louder than words.
In November, 2008, eight months after the Safir-1 was launched, Iran test-fired a new medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), named Sajil, with a stated range of 2,000 km and a two-stage, solid fuel system.
From then until Omid's launch into orbit Tuesday, a clear picture of Iran's progress on missile development and its relevance to its nuclear work should have been visible to US and European spy satellites together with the breakthroughs apparent in three key areas:
Iran has three-stage rockets propelled by solid fuel
1. Iran was proved to have rockets capable of reaching targets at a distance of 2,000-3,000, which brings parts of Europe within range of attack.
2. Safir-2 is a three-stage rocket propelled by solid fuel, an advance on the Sinjal which is only partly powered by solid fuel. Safir may not be highly sophisticated but Iranian engineers were able to use it to boost a satellite into space.
3. That ability – even through a small capsule of 25-40 kilograms was used and it reached a low altitude of 250-500 km – means that Iran is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on its ballistic missiles and sending them flying at a given target.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Iranian sources, the satellite itself is fairly primitive. Its optical instruments for tracking and imaging and its communications systems for transmitting data to ground stations are outdated.
The only part of Iran's nuclear program on which the West lacks information are the projects managed by the top-secret Military Group, which is responsible for developing and constructing nuclear warheads. Its existence is known, but not how far it has progressed toward weaponizing a nuclear device.
If the satellite launch caught Obama's White House and the Pentagon off-guard – as it would his predecessor George W. Bush – it was because neither expected Iran to move forward so smoothly on its missile and nuclear projects, or that Tehran would meet its declared timeline. Iranian officials' public pledges were treated as hollow boasts.
Obama's offer of talks is a fillip for Tehran's nuclear advances
Tehran is obviously racing against time to pre-configure the diplomatic landscape in its favor ahead of the direct talks promised by the Obama administration. The satellite launch prompted wry questions in the White House and National Security Council about what Tehran still has up its sleeve ahead of those talks. It has dawned on some members of those circles that President Obama's commitment to directly engage Tehran in diplomacy has given the Iranians extra impetus for chalking up progress on its nuclear and missile projects. They would then sit down at the negotiating table with a stronger hand.
Furthermore, Tehran appears to be in on the secret of the new US president's timeline for those talks and may have acquired access to his planned tactics.
The next question would be: Who is leaking these vital pieces of information to Tehran and helping it to pre-empt Washington at every turn?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that Obama has taken personal charge of his administration's Iran policy in private consultation with three European leaders: German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister Gordon Brown.
He has adopted three of their recommendations:
- On no account to go through president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but only straight to the top to supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Obama accordingly instructed William Burns, who represented the US at the discussions in Frankfurt among the five Security Council permanent members and Germany Wednesday, Feb. 4, to start the spadework for a summit between the president and the ayatollah.
Obama sets a three-month time limit for talks and tough preconditions
- To delay this summit until the end of June, by which time the results of Iran's presidential election will be in.
For this reason, Obama held off naming his special envoy for Iran when he appointed emissaries for other key regions like the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan.
Some National Security Council members believe the five-month delay is a mistake. Iran is left with enough leeway for establishing immutable facts both with regard to its nuclear and missile projects and plans to stir up mayhem in the Middle East at large.
- Obama took his European allies' advice to set a time limit on his talks with the Iranian leader, but made it shorter than his European allies recommended – three months which he considers enough. That may be the president's most important decision after being warned that without a deadline, Iran will shilly-shally to turn the diplomatic process into a war of attrition and make the Americans chase after fresh ideas to keep it afloat. Tehran would use the time to keep its nuclear plans moving along.
Obama therefore decided to give the Iranian leaders short shrift. Not only must they deliver on talks starting in late June by early September, but his preconditions for the talks are hardly likely to be accepted by Tehran.
A sine qua non for their start is the suspension of the Military Group's work on Iran's military nuclear program, warheads and their adaptation for missile delivery.
Second, the US-Iranian diplomatic process will be deemed successful only when it yields an accord for the complete abandonment and dismantling of Iran's independent nuclear program forthwith – that is within a three-month span.
Obama has set in train steps such as harsher sanctions to be taken in the worst-case scenario.