How Not to Get Caught – Again

Iran’s turbaned rulers are in the midst of a clean sweep of all the officials and diplomats responsible for the way the national nuclear program was presented to the world and for the failure to conceal Tehran’s efforts to attain a nuclear bomb. Some have spent years lobbying foreign governments and international watchdog officials.

Nonetheless, an Iranian intelligence report submitted to the supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and revealed for the first time here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Teheran – concludes that the entire project far from ending in a victory for Iran was in fact a fiasco.

The officials in the process of being axed are accused of failing to conceal from international watchers the fact that Iran had embarked on uranium enrichment and was running tests on plutonium separation. The ultimate debacle was the discovery by IAEA inspectors of samples of enriched weapons-grade uranium which they took with them for testing in their own labs.

The ayatollahs determined to draw a lesson from this failure.

But this has not stopped them scratching their heads for ways to press ahead with their forbidden nuclear weapons program – this time without getting caught and hammered with tough UN sanctions that could choke off the Islamic Republic’s main moneymaker – oil exports.

Iran’s rulers let out a collective sigh of relief over the wishy-washy outcome of last week’s International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in Vienna. The board voted to reprimand Iran for covering up eighteen years of breaches of its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But the American demand for a censure severe enough to refer to the UN Security Council for punitive action was thrown out, mainly by the Europeans.

Even so, Iranian leaders realize that they will be in for much more than a slap on the wrist if they are caught misbehaving again. They understand that they must be seen to abandon their uranium enrichment and drop their planned plutonium separation plant in Isfahan before the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, holds its next meeting in February 2004. Then, Director Mohamed ElBaradei will be asked for a final report to establish definitively whether or not Iran is actively working toward building a bomb. IAEA experts need no more a few months of lab tests to come up with conclusive proof of the Tehran regime’s guilt.

Significantly, Pakistan has suspended nuclear cooperation with the ayatollahs. The Musharraf regime is afraid to attract unwelcome attention from the international watchdog to its own activities after Tehran, to get itself of a hook, claimed that centrifuge equipment bought from Islamabad had been delivered already contaminated by slight traces of uranium.

One of the first officials to be sacked ahead of the critical February board meeting in Vienna is Ambassador at the IAEA Ali-Akbar Salehi. Iran’s diplomatic defenses are being shored up by a more seasoned replacement. DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals here that Iran’s new delegate to the IAEA is Mehr-Bozorg Zayyaran, one of two deputy foreign ministers for technical matters. It will up to him to shepherd Iran’s nuclear program through to the February decision without mishap. The outgoing man, Salehi, is suspected by his bosses not merely of mishandling the nuclear issue for his government, but of spilling nuclear secrets in private lobbying sessions with fellow delegates. He is also accused of painting an unduly rosy picture in his reports home on Iran’s chances of getting away with its forbidden programs.

Another casualty is Hoajjat-ol-Eslam Hassan Rouhani, whose job is on the line as secretary of the National Security Council and recipient of a personal mandate from spiritual leader Ali Khamenei to interact with foreign governments in order to present Iran’s nuclear program in the most favorable light.

All “blown” facilities have duplicates

But the main issue before one marathon meetings after another in Tehran is: How to keep the weapons program afloat and yet hidden from international sight.

Tehran has a substantial ace up its sleeve, a complete set of backup facilities built as a precaution at secret locations and able to take over production up to a nuclear bomb if the first set of factories is discovered.

The Natanz plant in central Iran, for instance, was “blown.” IAEA inspectors found underground production facilities being prepared for some 50,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Exactly the same facilities were secretly duplicated, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources, at Varamin in suburban Teheran and at two other locations.

Despite their best efforts, the Americans and Israelis have yet to get the goods on those plants, although they do know of their existence.

Alternatives to Natanz have been at the center of urgent discussions among Khamenei, Revolutionary Guards commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi, his deputy, Mohammad Bagher Zol-Ghadr, and defense minister Ali Shamkhani. They have to decide whether to transfer dismantled centrifuges from the discovered plant to secret alternative sites, or simply buy new ones on the black market.

Forecasts are not optimistic for a plutonium separation plant to be completed at Isfahan fast enough to beat international inspection. The international watchdog has already added the location to its list of known nuclear sites and is keeping an eye on it.

One key decision at these meetings was to pour more funds into speeding up the Shehab-4 missile project. Iranian leaders reason that a delivery weapon with a range of some 5,000 km (3,000 miles) may give the Islamic Republic a diplomatic edge over its persecutors. They appear to believe that a the new model Shehab would elevate Iran to North Korea-like status in the eyes of Europe and the United States, providing a sort of perpetual insurance policy. The way the clerics of Tehran see it, Iran armed with nukes and long-range missiles would be too much for Washington to take on. The Americans would abandon any thought of military action and give up their campaign of subversion to topple the Teheran government from within.

Earlier this year, Shamkhani denied Iran was planning to develop any missiles beyond the 1,300-km (800 mile)-range Shehab-3. According to DEBKA-News-Weekly‘s military sources, word of the Shahab-4 project was leaked by an Iraqi rocket scientist, who also complained not enough funds were available to bring the project to completion.

Making the fiasco palatable

Iranian officials spend much of their time spreading a veil of misinformation over their actions and motives. At the moment, Tehran is working hard to refute the conclusion by an Iranian expert proving that nuclear power to generate electricity is far more expensive than natural gas. This gives the lie to the sanctimonious assertions by Iranian spokesmen that their country is developing nuclear energy only for “peaceful” purposes. The same report goes on to demonstrate that not only is the energy produced at the German-Russian assisted nuclear reactor at Bushehr costly but that the reactor itself is dangerous. The equipment is based on 30-uear-old German technology and painstaking Russian upgrading. But the enterprise keeps on springing snags and as matters stand now it will not go on line before 2006, eight years later than planned.

Rouhani is likely to become the scapegoat for Iran’s humiliating climb-down in knuckling under to the international watchdog’s demand for a pledge to end its uranium enrichment project. After all, without enriched uranium, Iran will not attain a bomb and tens of millions of dollars will have gone down the drain. In yet another public statement, Rouhani assured his listeners that Iranian nuclear development programs could now proceed without fear of punishment.

When the cat was out of the bag, the discredited official tried to paint the IAEA governing board’s decision as an Iranian victory over the United States on the grounds that the pledge was for a temporary halt in uranium enrichment.

But anonymous leaflets distributed recently in Teheran, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources, charged the government with spreading lies to cover its fall into an international trap. The IAEA governing board’s decision stipulated that the termination of uranium enrichment must be permanent. Resumption of the project would bring Washington down on Tehran like a ton of bricks ready to haul the miscreant before the UN Security Council for painful punishment.

So if Natanz shuts down for good, Iran’s top officials will have a lot of explaining to do at home.

That’s why they are looking hard at the option of secretly transferring some of the facilities at Natanz to a clandestine location and continuing work there, the while putting a brave face on their predicament. Khamenei declared that Iran, as the leader of the Islamic world, must be strong enough to defend Muslims wherever they may be. President Mohammad Khatami assumed his trademark smile and asserted that since Islam forbids the use of nuclear weapons, Iran will never build a nuclear bomb. But in the same speech, he declared it was incumbent on the Islamic Republic to catch up with the developed world in nuclear research.

Boasts and warnings

Foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi boasted Iran had won IAEA recognition of its right to continue nuclear development – leaving out the two defining words “for peaceful purposes.” He also crowed over Tehran’s success in driving a wedge between Europe and the United States when a common stand would have confronted Iran with an immovable barrier. Washington, he maintained, lost out in its plan to bring Iran’s nuclear program before the Security Council.

Another influential cleric, Ahmad Janati, who sits on Iran’s hard-line constitutional commission, was less optimistic. In his Friday sermon last week, he warned that while Iran has passed its first IAEA test safely, it would be dangerous to underestimate US determination to pursue the nuclear issue to the end. The Americans, he said, were “like hot embers burning under the ash”.

The Baztab Internet site representing senior Iranian official views took a similar line. Tehran must not make the mistake of imagining it had pulled the wool over European eyes or divided Europe from the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue. The delegation of British, French and German foreign ministers who came to Tehran last month to work out a compromise formula had promised the Iranian government that if it met the nuclear watchdog’s requirements, Europe would provide assistance in advanced nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

According to the Baztab writer, the Europeans are expected to back out of their promise because it was contingent on proof that Iran had forsaken its ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapon for good. This proof has not been forthcoming.

Summing up the latest round of developments in Teheran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that top Iranian officials are working on the transfer of compromised exposed nuclear facilities to secret locations. The United States is itching to incriminate Iran, the Europeans are closely monitoring Iran to see if it carries out its commitments, and domestic critics are preparing to blast the government over the waste of billions of dollars for nuclear development. The nuclear issue will likely be at the center of Iran’s parliamentary election campaign that kicks off in early January ahead of a national poll in March.

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