President Barack Obama and his Iranian strategists, led by top adviser Daniel Shapiro, Middle East director at the National Security Council, assumed that Israel would be the toughest nut to crack when the deal with Russia went through for the activation of Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr on Aug. 21.
Shapiro, who has a long personal acquaintance with the top Israeli political, military and intelligence chiefs, warned that Israel would not sit still for the plant to go operational. He therefore advised the president to forestall an Israeli operation against the reactor or some other strategic Iranian target with a very generous quid pro quo commensurate with the hazards perceived by Israel from its activation.
The official US and Russian claims that the reactor is just a power plant and therefore harmless – and anyway the spent fuel rods would be returned to Moscow – is refuted by the Netanyahu government, which diagnoses the reactor as an important link in the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239 and far from peaceful.
Yes, say the Israelis, it is a PWR-Pressurized Water Reactor type which uses uranium enriched to only about 4 percent. After its radiation in the reactor, the plutonium produced from this fuel would not be of the quality required to build an atomic bomb.
And yes, if the Iranians wanted to extract military-grade plutonium from this fuel, they would have to build a large separation plant and additional smaller processing facilities demanding sophisticated technologies unavailable to them at present.
Five major sticking points
At the same time, the Israelis have five very big caveats:
1. It is possible under certain operating conditions for the Bushehr reactor – even in its present incarnation – to be used to produce fuel of the "military" quality suitable for an atomic bomb.
2. The Iranians themselves are gearing up to start cutting Russia out of the picture and starting production of the nuclear fuel for activating the reactor locally.
Already, six days after receiving their first shipment of Russian fuel for Bushehr, the head of Iran's nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi on Aug. 26 submitted a proposal to Moscow to "create a consortium under license" for Russia to share with Iran the work of producing nuclear fuel for this and future Iranian plants. Part would be produced in Russia and part in Iran.
After than, nothing will stand in Tehran's way for taking charge of all parts of the production process. Iran's commitments to inspections by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT have never presented an obstacle to its well-documented practices of deception and concealment.
3. Iran is believed to be forging ahead with its military program at existing uranium enrichment facilities and others still undiscovered by Israel or the West. Iran has made no secret of its drive for technology to enrich uranium to a military level.
Western intelligence agencies are not sure what is going on at a mysterious place called Darkhovin on the Karun River just 20 kilometers south of Bushehr and not far from the Khuzestani capital, Ahwaz.
Under the control of the Revolutionary Guards – IRGC – it is suspected of being an underground nuclear weapons-related facility of an unknown nature, possibly a structure already built or in preparation for the extraction of plutonium 239 from the fuel rods provided by Russia. This has yet to be established.
Bushehr – the third missing link for high-grade plutonium production
There is no argument between Washington and Jerusalem about the true purpose of the heavy water facility in Arak which was obviously designed to produce weapon-grade plutonium.
According to our intelligence sources, no one in Washington can prove or disprove the theory put forward by Israeli experts that the completion of Bushehr gives Iran's nuclear weapons program the missing link with Arak and Darkhovin to establish a three-way chain for the production of military-standard plutonium. Not enough is yet known to Israeli and Western intelligence about this.
The Americans and Russians maintain that only if Tehran is prevented from conducting uranium enrichment, will it turn to using the Bushehr reactor as a source of fissile material for nuclear weapons. This does not wash because the Iranians began pursuing the plutonium track parallel to the processing of uranium some time ago.
In fact, if Israel hadn't three years ago attacked and destroyed the plutonium reactor North Korea was building in northern Syria as a component of the Iranian program, Iran would have already been in possession of enough plutonium to build at least one atom bomb.
4. Israel objects to Bushehr additionally because it provides a clandestine training ground for turning out a whole generation of Iranian nuclear scientists and technicians qualified to reinforce the clandestine production taking place at Natanz and Arak. The US government, like Israel, is well aware of the dangerous overlap of skills required for civilian and military nuclear projects and the consequent danger of proliferation presented by such a training program.
Bushehr gives Iran leeway to conceal more facilities, train more technicians
5. Some of the hazards presented by Iran's active reactor in Bushehr should be obvious even to the layman and require no special expertise beyond common sense.
Even taking the naïve view that the plant has no military attributes and the Iranians will never use it to produce plutonium 239, its activation still renders it safe from attack because of the threat of environmental contamination. Since it is immune to attack, Iran can freely and safely transfer to the Bushehr reactor compound as many of the banned elements of their military program as they wish – and may have already done so – or even a complete arsenal of bombs.
These forbidden facilities will not be accessible to Russian and IAEA inspectors because they are concerned only with keeping the Iranians from misusing the spent fuel rods and will not go around the subsidiary installations surrounding the central core of the reactor.
Despite these formidable reservations, the administration was surprised to find two of Binyamin Netanyahu's emissaries to Washington, Yitzhak Molcho and National Security Council Adviser Dr. Uzi Arad, ready for a deal whereby Israel would abstain from striking – or even protesting against – the Bushehr reactor so as not to raise the level of Middle East military tensions. In return, they asked the Obama administration to tone down his vocal advocacy of Palestinian statehood and his backing for the Palestinian demands in the forthcoming negotiations regarding permanent borders between Israel and the Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees' claim to return to their pre-1948 homes.
Netanyahu assumes a deal with Obama – and gets it wrong
Yet, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Jerusalem sources, on Friday, August 20, with the Bushehr startup only hours away and too late to stop, the Obama administration began reneging on the deal.
At a State Department press conference at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special enovy Senator George Mitchell announced the start of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington on Sept. 2, Mitchell spoke of American "bridging proposals" if necessary.
This was a diplomatic euphemism for a free US hand to inject its own proposals in an impasse. Since the beginning of the week, US sources have made it abundantly clear that such "bridging proposals" will represent independent Obama administration policies superimposed on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with regard to the key issues of permanent borders, Jerusalem, and security concerns.
To Israeli sources, made sensitive by long experience to big power attempts to impose solutions governing their security on the dispute with the Palestinians, Mitchell's words felt like a betrayal of the tradeoff deal the Netanyahu government entered into for lining up behind Washington on the Bushehr project.
Dispelling any doubts in that regard, Washington stepped in again Monday, Aug. 23, to announce that prolonging Israel's 10-month freeze on settlement construction after its expiry on Sept. 25, would top the agenda of the direct negotiations beginning next week.
Suddenly, the Netanyahu government felt cornered by Obama.
A standoff just beginning
After opting for inaction on the Bushehr reactor, he is to stand face to face with the Palestinians on Sept. 2 bereft of the US backing which he believed he had secured in return. This brings the US president and the Israeli premier into a new standoff which may be just beginning, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from both capitals.
Claiming Obama did not stand by his side of their understanding, Netanyahu threatens to abandon his promise to abstain from attacking Bushehr or other Iranian nuclear plants.
Israel's revival of its military option for Iran weighs heavily on the administration in Washington and figured large in the American media this week. Obama took action by sending two big guns to Jerusalem to try and hold Israel in check: International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano, who explained that under his stewardship the nuclear watchdog's treatment of Iran would be quite different from the lenience shown by his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, followed by presidential adviser Daniel Shapiro. He came bearing security gifts – both for Israeli restraint on Iran and as a softener for Netanyahu to be generous with concessions to the Palestinians in the negotiations opening in Washington on Sept. 2.
(There mission is covered in more detail in HOT POINTS of Aug. 25 below)