In the latter part of June, the US, Israel, the Saudi-led Arab group and Turkey suddenly realized that by the first half of 2012 Iran would most probably have accumulated two-to-four – or as many as six – nuclear bombs or warheads and enough ICBMs to deliver them anywhere on earth.
The discovery, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report, came as a shock to world leaders: Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Ministers David Cameron in London, Silvio Berlusconi in Rome and Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem had not been alive to Iran's spectacular breakthrough in its push for a nuclear weapon – or how close the Islamic Republic has come to being able to perform its first nuclear test if it so chooses.
The first responders were Saudi King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. They informed the heads of US and European governments that they had fast-forwarded their plans for getting hold of their own nuclear weapons.
Our intelligence sources report that the US and Israeli governments were among others who secretly ordered probes to find out how their intelligence services had been caught unawares by Iran's nuclear progress and why the CIA and Mossad in particular had briefed their policy-makers with outdated timetables.
These inquiries sparked infighting and mutual accusations of responsibility in and among Western intelligence agencies (more about which in the next article in this issue).
Uranium enrichment accelerated after glitches overcome
The inquiries also seek to discover how Iran managed to keep its impressive advances from their attention for almost a year since October 2010 – even though some were carried out in full sight.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly pins down the four key components of Iran's nuclear breakthrough:
1. The dramatic acceleration of the uranium enrichment process resulting in expanded product.
This has been achieved without affording the UN nuclear watchdog, Western intelligence or research agencies, so much as a clue to the quantities produced and stocked.
For six months, therefore, Iran has managed to keep the full scope of its enrichment activities hidden from IAEA inspections. Even though monitors were admitted to the known enrichment facility at Natanz, they were unable to gauge how many active centrifuges were present and how many removed to unknown site or sites. The sophisticated cameras supposed to monitor the Natanz facility are no longer recording all Iran's enrichment activities because production sites have been moved out of shot.
Only three things are known for sure about Iran's clandestine uranium enrichment industry:
– The faster the pace of enrichment, the slower the pace of data reaching the outside world and the less information. There is no reason to assume that the true state of international knowledge about other branches of Iran's nuclear program is any better.
– The Iranians have solved all the technical glitches plaguing their centrifuge machines – no one knows how – and all 6,000 at least are spinning smoothly and continuously.
– They have also vanquished the Stuxnet computer virus which started attacking the program's centrifuges and control systems in June 2010. Those systems, the crippled enrichment facility in Natanz and the nuclear reactor in Bushehr are all working efficiently.
The move to Fordo for raising enrichment to weapons grade
It took a whole year for Iranian and Russian computer cyber war experts to cleanse the Iranian nuclear system of the malworm. Now, for the first time, military and intelligence agencies have a yardstick for measuring the time it takes to beat off a potential cyber-terror attack and they can work on counter-measures to reduce the damaging time scale.
2. All 20 percent-capable uranium enrichment plant is being transferred from Natanz to the new clandestine facility at Fordo 100 kilometers away in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom. The facility bored deep into a mountainside is heavily guarded by Revolutionary Guards units. It will operate free of international inspection. Every European and IAEA request to monitor the Fordo site and any other new nuclear facilities has been rejected.
3. Western nuclear experts estimate the Fordo facility will be operational by the end of the summer – i.e., late August or early September. It will enable Iran to further enrich uranium from 20 percent to 60 percent. Iranian officials claim this is the level required for their research reactors. The experts stress that enhancement to 60 percent is the critical step towards 90 percent, the grade necessary for nuclear bombs and warheads.
4. In addition to weapons-grade uranium enrichment, Iran has in the last three months secretly built a nuclear warhead prototype.
On June 27, Iran unveiled an underground missile silo for launching its SHAHAB-3 missiles.
The next day came an announcement that a monkey would be launched into space by a homemade Kavoshgar-5 rocket. Five monkeys were said to be in training, one of which would be selected for the flight.
Monkey in space – key to nuclear payload
In terms of Iran's capabilities, this means that in the two years since the February 2009 launching into orbit of the the Omid satellite – which weighed only 27 kilos – Iran has attained a missile with a payload capacity of 330 kilos. By launching the monkey, Iran will for the first time also be testing the equivalent weight of a nuclear warhead.
The two achievements – both announced by Tehran – show that, if the next space launch succeeds, Iran will be in command of rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads launched from underground missile silos and able to hit any point on the planet
The day after these disclosures, British Foreign Secretary William Hague came forward with the information which he reported to the British Parliament that Iran has also been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN Resolution 1929.
Until then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military, intelligence and Iranian sources had been reporting for nearly a year – alone of all Western publications and defiance of US and Israeli denials – that Iran already had operational missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
Now those sources add that Iran has so far carried out four such missile tests – three during the five months between October 2010 and February 2011 and the fourth and last test on Tuesday, June 28, as part of its Great Prophet War Games 6.
In the first series beginning October 2010, two Sejjil missiles and one SHAHAB-3 Kadar missile were launched successfully and one failed. Both types are powered by solid fuel and have a maximum range of 2,510 kilometers. The missile tested successfully Tuesday was another SHAHAB-3 Kadar.
Work is now continuing to improve the targeting accuracy of these nuclear-capable missiles.