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Teheran’s confidence in its ability to press on with its prohibited nuclear weapons program while blowing hot and cold on international threats was rudely shattered last week. Against all its expectations, a tough US-backed ultimatum was tabled and carried by the International Atomic Energy Agency board in Vienna on Friday, September 12. Iran was given until October 31 to stump up with full details of its nuclear activities program and prove it was not engaged in covert weapons production.
If this deadline is not met, the screw will turn again: The IAEA will pronounce Iran in violation of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, opening the door to a UN Security Council debate in December 2003 or January 2004 and economic sanctions, one of which will prohibit UN members from purchasing oil and energy products from Iran, a measure that would bring havoc to Iran’s limping economy.
At one stroke, Iran’s options were reduced to two:
1. Knuckle under to the ultimatum and open up its nuclear site to full, unannounced international inspections. This would be tantamount to halting the enrichment of uranium for the manufacture of a bomb, a surrender the Islamic clerical regime might not survive.
2. Defy the ultimatum by emulating North Korea’s tactics of confronting every international threat with an escalation, such as testing missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads or staging nuclear tests. The price for this defiance will be steep, punishing sanctions that will further cripple an economy already hobbled by roaring unemployment that in some places reaches 50 percent.
debkafile‘s Persian Gulf sources reveal that Tehran was stunned when Moscow and New Delhi lined up behind the tough US measure at the IAEA board meeting. Multibillion deals for the construction of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr and other technology transfers net Russia invaluable revenues, while India’s close trade and military exchanges with Iran are worth some $2.5 bn per annum. Tehran had counted on the two powers dragging their feet or toning down a US measure – not supporting it. In fact, both feigned sympathy for the Iranian position until the final vote, when they switched sides
debkafile reveals that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon played an active role in the diplomacy leading up to the American diplomatic coup in Vienna. He made discreet telephone calls to Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and placed it on the agenda of his talks with Indian prime minister Atali Bihar Vajpayee when they met in New Delhi last Tuesday, September 9.
In its last issue of September 12, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources revealed that prior to the Vienna meeting, Iran’s radical spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his top advisers had carefully plotted a deception-by-procrastination strategy in anticipation of a much milder IAEA resolution. They decided to offer to start talks on signing the Additional Protocol that permit snap international inspections of its nuclear sites and so meet a longstanding demand. Their plan was to drag out these talks month after month in order to buy time enough to move their nuclear weapons program forward before the axe descended.
Tehran would meanwhile demand to be rewarded for its “flexibility” by IAEA approval for technology transfers to be made for its “peaceful” nuclear energy projects. Eventually, the Additional Protocol would get signed. But that wouldn’t be the end of it. A bevy of Iranian bureaucratic and elected institutions, such as the all-powerful, Khamenei-ruled Council of Guardians, would have to ratify the signature before it took effect – after due deliberation in each of them. Then, Khamenei would lay down his last trump card, declaring that only he as spiritual ruler was qualified to grant final approval for a paramount national issue.
By these tricks and stratagems, Iranian rulers expected to win time to manufacture a “primitive” nuclear bomb. They also believed the Americans would be too distracted by crises in Iraq and elsewhere to keep an eye on their clandestine activities and would therefore leave them free to spring Iran’s Muslim Shiite nuclear bomb on the world.
To find out how much time he had, Khamenei demanded to know how long before the national nuclear weapons program reached its point of no return, namely one stage before the assembly of a nuclear bomb. Summoned to his office were the 37 top nuclear experts heading the different projects at Natanz, Arak, Esfahan and Kashan, together with Iran’s atomic energy commission director, Gholam-reza Aghazadeh.
The told him that the testing of the centrifuges in Natanz should be completed in months and uranium enrichment can begin as soon as December 2003. An enrichment level of 70 percent or more would then be just months away, enabling Iran to build a “primitive” bomb similar to the one Tehran believes North Korea possesses.
Before the US-backed ultimatum was slapped down last Friday, the clerics of Tehran had banked on being treated by Washington with the same diplomatic caution as Pyongyang. They believed they could run rings around the Americans with time on their side. Last Friday, the tables were turned. America grabbed the time factor and confronted the Islamic Republic with a resounding diplomatic debacle.
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