Nuclear concerns hovered over the Middle East this week, heralded by a disclosure by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sources Tuesday, Nov. 1 that Syria had once built a uranium enrichment facility for developing a nuclear bomb at Al-Hasaka near the junction of the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders.
It was identical to the plant the late Muammar Qaddafi built for making a Libyan atom bomb.
Both obtained the plans from the clandestine network run by Dr. Abdel Qader Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb and source of the nuclear programs of China, Burma and North Korea.
Today a cotton spinning mill stands on the site.
Our sources revealed that in early March 2003 Syria received low-level enriched uranium and other nuclear equipment from Iraq. Saddam Hussein had decided to transfer most of his nuclear equipment and WMD to Syria, a fact which the West has refused to acknowledge.
Syria planned to enrich this uranium to higher levels at the Hasaka facility.
The IAEA sources further disclosed that letters were exchanged in the late 1990s between a senior official of the Syrian Atomic Energy Committee called Muhidin Issa and Dr. Khan in Pakistan, about a visit by Issa to Pakistan's nuclear labs.
Syria is thus exposed as having sought to make a nuclear weapon as far back as 13 years ago. But it did not stop there. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that in email exchanges four years ago between Khan and American researchers, he said he had visited Syria twice.
The first time was in the late eighties, when he and his colleagues were changing flights in Damascus and decided together to break their journey and spend two days touring Syria's historical mosques, tombs and sites, and again with a delegation attending a Science Conference.
But Khan denied any nuclear deals with Syria.
The next IAEA report – "a game-changer on the Iranian dossier"
According to our sources, the Syrian disclosure was part of IAEA's advance publicity for its forthcoming report on Iran to be published next Tuesday, Nov. 8 in Vienna. Some western officials are already calling it "a game-changer in the Iranian nuclear dossier" because of the substantial amount of unpublished data gathered for seven years which could only be for the design and development of a nuclear warhead.
"It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance," they said.
They had less to say about the possibility of an extreme Iranian reaction to these findings, especially if they generate harsh sanctions such as Tehran has already warned would be seen as an act of war.
Given the content disclosed in the second article in this issue (Why Are Israelis Sure a War with Iran is Impending?), the connection between the nuclear disclosures from Vienna on Syria and Iran and Israel's decision to unveil its first nuclear-capable ballistic missile, Jericho 3, Wednesday, Nov. 2, is obvious.
Many of the details the IAEA promises to disclose will be familiar to veteran DEBKA-Net-Weekly readers, although their public disclosure now is important.
They will show that Iran is far closer than usually admitted in the West to a nuclear weapons capability.
Without saying so explicitly, the report will confirm a widely-known fact that the sanctions on which Washington counted for compelling Iran to give up its military nuclear program were non-starters.
The US, Iran and Israel line up their responses
Three governments, the US, Iran and Israel, had advance knowledge of the contents of the nuclear watchdog's report, which is expected to be earthshaking, and had two weeks to prepare their reactions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports exclusively on those preparations:
President Barack Obama has ordered a total embargo on the sale and purchase of Iranian oil to be ready to go. It will be imposed unilaterally by the US and Western Europe because this measure would be defeated by Russia, China and India if tabled at the UN Security Council. Transactions with or through Iran's state bank will also be banned, cutting Tehran off from financial dealings in the West.
(Details below on Tehran's maneuvers for bypassing sanctions)
These are the penalties which Tehran has warned in the past would be deemed acts of war. Obama hopes that they will choke Iran financially.
Iran's top officials have been running around in circles for the past week, trying to decide how to respond to the revelations in store against them. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report they are wavering between four options:
1. Coming partially clean on their nuclear weapons program – either by disclosing components or launching a nuclear-capable ballistic missile to a range of over 5,000 kilometers. Iran has steadily denied its nuclear program was anything but peaceful. By making this disclosure a day or two before the IAEA report, Tehran would break its own rules but also steal the nuclear watchdog's thunder.
2. Conducting a nuclear test – not necessarily of a warhead or a bomb, which Iran does not have – but of some device. This would boost Iran's image as a leading Middle East and Muslim power, particularly after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi, a Muslim Arab ruler whose reign ended in the dust after he waived his nuclear option and handed it over to the West.
3. Raising military tensions on the Syrian, Lebanese and Gaza borders with Israel as per a longstanding contingency plan, accompanied by a campaign of terror against US targets in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
4. None of the first three options. Instead, using help from Russia, China, India and Brazil to bypass the most damaging sanctions. The machinery is already in place. Our sources have reported that Iran's foreign oil trade is conducted these days through a Russian-Iranian sales agency based in Moscow and out of reach of American and Western powers and their oversight. Transactions are conducted through Russian and Chinese banks in Russian rubles and Chinese yuans instead of US dollars and the euro.
Iran has therefore shown it can ride out the next round of American sanctions by using Moscow and Beijing to cushion itself against their impact. To apply an arms embargo and boycott Iran's central bank, the Obama administration would find itself in collision with Beijing and Moscow. Tehran calculates that given the current state of the Western economies, the US and its allies are in no fit state to enter into a clash of superpowers at this time.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak, both committed by election pledges to pre-empt Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon, decided now to pre-empt the IAEA's Iran report rather than waiting for Iran's reaction.
Wednesday, Nov. 2, they ordered the first public test-launch of a new Israeli intercontinental ballistic missile, Jericho 3. Foreign correspondents were encouraged to stress that the new weapon is capable of carrying a 750kg nuclear warhead over a distance of up to 7,000 km – farther still with a warhead weighing only 350kg. According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a salvo of 42 conventional missiles would “severely damage or demolish” Iran’s core nuclear sites at Natanz, Esfahan and Arak.
For underground facilities like the Fordo plant near Qom, Israel obtained in the third week of September 55 American GBU-28 bunker buster bombs.
This first glimpse of a part of Israel's nuclear capabilities carried three messages to Tehran:
1. Israel would not hesitate to use its nuclear ability to wipe out Iran's military nuclear program. For the first time in its 62 years, Israel is challenging a hostile Muslim country with a nuclear threat.
2. To this end, Israel did not wait for Iran to pre-empt the IAEA report by abandoning its nuclear ambiguity but jumped in before them both.
3. Jericho 3 forced Tehran to make a tough choice: Ignore it and be seen as a nuclear paper tiger in the Muslim and Arab world, or hit back and precipitate a dangerous escalation of war tension in the Middle East.