When they started coming in Monday, Nov. 14, the first US and Israeli spy satellite images of the explosions at the Alghadir Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) base 45 km west of Tehran further deepened the mystery of their cause, two days after the event. The devastation was staggering. Within seconds, a 52-square kilometer (20 sq. mile) area around the base was laid waste, as though ravaged by a nuclear blast – except for the absence of radioactivity or any other symptoms of fissile activity.
Since the explosions, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian intelligence sources report, no human or vehicular movement has been sighted in this vast area, which IRGC guards keep strictly off limits.
Even the pillar of smoke rising from the explosion seen in photos taken from 15 kilometers away and released by Tehran two hours after the calamity attested to a blast far too large to have been caused by the explosives contained in the shaped charge surrounding a plutonium or uranium core.
The initial assessment by Israeli and American intelligence experts that the explosion was caused by the first Iranian attempt to mount on a Sejil-2 ballistic missile a nuclear warhead, filled at this stage with conventional explosives, is still only hypothetical in the absence of intelligence corroboration.
Four signs of an experiment on a new missile and warhead
Even so, it cannot be ruled out altogether, especially when this possibility is raised by new evidence presented in the IAEA report's section on Iran's military related activities.
This section describes how Iran tried to re-engineer the Shahab-3 missile's reentry vehicle. It suggests that Iran had some knowledge of advanced nuclear weapon design and had tested some of its components, although it had not used actual nuclear material in those experiments.
Our sources postulate that last Saturday, the missile experts at the Alghadir base were attempting another of these experiments, only it went badly wrong.
Our sources draw attention to conspicuous signs that Iran was in the process of conducting an advanced experiment on a new Iranian missile and warhead to rival the Jericho 3 ballistic missile which Israel test-launched on Nov. 2. The upgraded Jericho was shown to be capable of carrying a 750-kilogram nuclear warhead to a distance of 7,000 kilometers – and still farther if the warhead were smaller.
Those sources point to four of these signs:
1. On the fateful Saturday, Nov. 12, all of Iran's military, religious and political bigwigs were ordered to stay in Tehran on call to be summoned to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for an important decision.
US and Israeli intelligence evaluators conclude that they were on standby for the outcome of the test at the IRGC base. Had it been successful, the assembled top officials would have been called on to publicly unveil the new advanced missile and warhead to the world as an act of defiance against Israel and a hoot of contempt for the detrimental IAEA report released five days earlier.
Why were all Iran's bigwigs on standby in Tehran?
2. Regarding the presence at the test of the senior architect of Iran's missile program, Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, who died in the explosion, Western intelligence services had been aware for months that he was working on a clandestine project for developing advanced nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles, possibly the one referred to in the IAEA report. This would account for his otherwise unexplained presence at the site of the explosion.
3. The utter mayhem among Iranian leaders when the massive explosion at the IRGC base rattled Tehran at around 1:10 pm Saturday. The lines linking the bureaus of Ayatollah Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and IRGC headquarters broke down. The IRGC units entrusted with guarding the regime against a coup d'etat and a surprise attack on Iran's nuclear sites, charged into the capital on the alert for trouble.
It took more than two hours for Iran's ruling institutions to recover control.
4. The entire Iranian leadership turned out in force Sunday, Nov. 13, for the funerals of the officers killed in the explosion at the Alghadir bases, a manifestation of public mourning at the highest level unprecedented in the 32 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The next day, the coffins of the eight most senior officers who died were brought to the Supreme leader's bureau for a memorial service which he conducted in person.
Our Iranian sources report that whereas Tehran reported only 17 officers had been killed in the explosion, they were able to count 36 funerals.
Unprecedented leadership honors for dead missile officers
The list of officials who visited the grieving families is instructive. It attests to the tremendous importance the regime heads attached to the missile test which failed. It also serves as an updated who's who of the men who hold the most influential positions in Tehran.
They included Ali Larjani, Speaker of the Iranian parliament (the Majlis), and Mohsein Rezaei, Secretary of the Expediency Council and ex-commander of the IRGC, who was himself in mourning 12 hours after learning of his son's murder in Dubai.
(See a separate report on the new wave of assassinations against opponents of the Iranian regime).
Other visitors to the bereaved homes were Saeed Jalili, Director of the National Security Council and designated senior nuclear negotiator; Hossein Salami, of the IRGC; Hojat al-Eslams Ali Saeedi and Moussa Qorbani, the IRGC's most senior clerics; and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods Brigades, the Guards' external operations arm.
Soleimani's public appearance in Tehran at a private event – even on a visit of condolence – is unheard of. The Al Qods chief is the most secretive and closely guarded figure in Iran today. His appearance was further evidence that Iran's leaders were satisfied that the explosion was not an act of foreign sabotage, as some Western analysts were quick to speculate.
What happened to the new device the late Brig. Moghaddam was testing?
Some Middle East missile experts quoted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources are focusing on three likely causes of the mishap:
One: The Iranian-designed core tested may have had small irregularities and therefore fell short of the most exacting of tolerances required for a warhead's optimum fit, and so would have caused an aborted detonation; or –
Two: The Russian, Chinese or other suppliers may have given Iran old warheads. Deteriorated mechanisms in their shaped charge, explosive material, or timing circuits, may have caused the explosion; or
Three: The warhead(s) could have been altered to blow before they were shipped to Iran, or when they were transferred after arrival to the Alghadir Revolutionary Guards missile base.
Since Iranian scientists, engineers and military are known for their fanatical adherence to safety precautions, the main question to be answered now is not which outside clandestine agency, Mossad or CIA, engineered the deadly explosion, but what new Iranian weapons system, scarcely known in the West, was in the works when it blew.
It must have been pretty powerful to shatter windows at least 45 kilometers away in Tehran, and generate the sensation of an earthquake in the capital.