Operatives of the American and the Russian SVR secret service’s first directorate are jointly engaged in an epic hunt for a band of undercover Iraqi operatives racing up and down Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan this past week. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources, the Iraqis have been sent by Saddam Hussein on an illicit hunt for nuclear material, particularly weapons-grade enriched Uranium-235. They are also trying to buy black market missile parts.
American and Russian task forces have set up a joint command center in Moscow to coordinate the high-stakes chase.
The alarm was first sounded in Washington and Moscow in early August by reports of Iraq agents splashing out with multi-million dollar offers for nuclear material. They did not take the information too seriously at first. But then came further reports that 15 Iraqi agents had split up into three groups, two covering Kazakhstan and the Ukraine and the third, Belarus.
The American and Russian presidents put their heads together and decided their intelligence operational divisions would mount a hot pursuit of the Iraqi agents, hoping to get to them before they reached their objective.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say the chase is still on.
Iran Accuses Russians of Sabotaging Bushehr Reactor
Iran’s dreaded Revolutionary Guards are hunting for Russian engineers suspected of sabotaging the 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor which Russia is constructing under its $800 m. contract with Tehran near the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr, 750 miles south of the Iranian capital.
Supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered the country’s intelligence chiefs, Revolutionary Guards commanders and the chairman of the Iranian Atomic Energy Commission to lose no time in getting to the bottom of and exposing what he described furiously to his close intimates as the “Russian-American conspiracy to cripple our nuclear reactor at Bushehr”.
The nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has been a heated subject between the United States and Russia, with the Russians claiming the nuclear project was a purely civilian enterprise.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Teheran quote Khamenei’s charges, as conveyed to an emergency secret meeting after Friday prayers on August 16. The ayatollah claimed to have received credible information from a source in Moscow he declined to name, alleging that the Russians had finally succumbed to US-Israeli pressure to limit its nuclear cooperation with Iran.
The angry leader spoke with Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president, who is one of his top national security and intelligence advisers, by his side. President Vladimir Putin, said Khamenei, could not risk openly violating the terms of his 1995 nuclear cooperation contract with Iran without damaging Moscow’s credibility as an international trading partner – especially since Iran paid up on schedule. The Russians therefore had to go through the motions of building a fully operable reactor. However, to still American protests, Putin hit on a ruse. He instructed Russian intelligence to hint to the Russian engineers now finishing work on the reactor to insert a few mistakes in their calculations before passing them on to the Russian and Iranian technicians installing the various parts of the nuclear facility.
Khamenei insisted the source of this information was “unimpeachable”.
Both Khamenei and Rafsanjani are quoted as saying they were not surprised at Russian attempts to sabotage the reactor or some of its more sensitive components, given the fragile state of Iranian-Russian relations over the Bushehr project.
Then and there, they ordered the Revolutionary Guards to seek out the Russian engineers with access to these sensitive facilities. Rafsanjani said they must be arrested and held until the Iranian government decides what to do with these enemies of Iran’s national security.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Teheran interpret Rafsanjani’s remarks as suggesting that the Iranian government already knows the names of the Russian engineers suspected of sabotaging the Bushehr project. Iran may even be pondering whether to prevent the hundreds of Russian engineers and technicians at Bushehr from returning home, until Moscow and Teheran settle the sabotage controversy.
A senior Iranian diplomat, Amir Hussein Zamani-Nia, head of the Iranian foreign ministry's international policy section, was sent post haste to Moscow on Monday, August 19. He was received immediately by high-ranking Russian officials, who endeavored to cool the nuclear crisis. The Iranian official arrived at the same time as a US congressional delegation, come to deter Russia from entering into a new nuclear deal for the construction of another five nuclear reactors in the Islamic Republic. The Americans said it would be regrettable if nuclear cooperation with Tehran were allowed to sour Washington-Moscow relations.
The day the Iranian envoy departed Moscow, Wednesday, August 21, the Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyuantsev announced that Moscow had signed all the documentation for ensuring the return to Moscow of the Iranian reactor’s spent nuclear fuel. “We will make sure all the used nuclear fuel is back in our possession and cannot fall into the wrong hands,” the Russian minister said.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow and Tehran described the talks between the Iranian emissary and his Russian hosts as heated. Zamani-Nia bluntly accused the Russians of sabotaging the Bushehr reactor to curry favor with Washington. He also ruled out any negotiations on the future of spent nuclear fuel until the current crisis was resolved.