Iran is preparing to stun the world with the revelation that it has produced its first nuclear weapon and qualifies for the status of nuclear power.
Reporting this from Iranian and intelligence sources, DEBKA-Net-Weekly cites some of them as predicting that Tehran may drop this bombshell in days.
The highest levels of the Iranian regime are still locked in frenzied debate over the if and when to drop it, but Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to have made up his mind. He is confident that the shock value of an Iranian nuclear fait accompli will make the world stumble in its tracks and arrest the rolling snowball of sanctions and military threats inundating Iran and its allies, specifically Syria.
While Khamenei's inner circle is behind the Supreme Ruler, the National Security Council and its chairman Saeed Jalili are against coming out of the nuclear closet. In a detailed report, they recommend that Tehran continue to deny its nuclear program has any non-peace elements. And if they are overruled, they advise careful tactical steps be taken to pave the way for full disclosure of the bomb program.
In any case, not all the technical obstacles for practically manufacturing Iran's first nuclear weapon have been overcome.
Satellite surveillance holds up pivotal experiment
For instance, the detonator for triggering a chain reaction that causes a nuclear explosion has been assembled – but not tested.
The first experiment scheduled for mid-November at the containment vessel in the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran, where the Iranians are conducting hydrodynamic experiments, had to be postponed because if it had taken place, it would have confirmed the International Atomic Energy Agency's allegations whose release on Nov. 8 set the world by its ears.
The IAEA accused Iran of developing a detonator and presented satellite pictures of "a large steel container for carrying out tests with explosives as powerful as nuclear weapons."
Our military and intelligence sources report efforts to secretly move the containment vessel to another, more secret, testing site much farther away from Tehran and prying Western eyes. But this is getting harder every day because two Israeli and several US and British spy satellites are watching Parchin and other suspicious sites like eagles and taking overlapping photos of the slightest movements. This is holding up the pivotal experiment.
Tuesday, Nov. 22, reports came in from IAEA headquarters in Vienna that satellite surveillance had picked up increased activity at an Iranian site suspected of clandestine work on the weapons project. One official cited intelligence from his home country indicating that Iran was trying to cover its tracks by "sanitizing" the site to remove traces of nuclear activity. Two other sources confirmed increased activity but reserved judgment on its nature.
Khamenei aims to ward off sanctions and relieve Syria of pressure
These reports are taken in Tehran as attempts to bully Iran into discontinuing its nuclear experiments.
However, Khamenei and his advisers are not deterred; they are said to be resolved to go public on Iran's first atom bomb – whether or not the detonator experiment goes ahead in the coming days. He is convinced that the powerful effect of full nuclear disclosure would counteract the heavy pressures weighing down on Tehran in three main areas:
1. Spiraling economic sanctions:
The Iranian government is extremely disturbed by the latest series of sanctions announced by the US, Britain and Canada Monday, Nov. 21, which target its banks on the pretext of money laundering concerns and prohibit their own banks from doing business with Islamic Republic.
Despite the availability of the banking systems of Russia, China, India, Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, Iran's business links with the West are blocked and it expects more tough sanctions are in the pipeline.
When President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon linked the toppling of Assad with Iran's strategic situation in the Gulf region and the Middle East (See a separate article in this issue: The Saudis No Longer Waiting for US, Developing Own Nuclear Strike Capability), Tehran saw confirmation of what it had long suspected: Western denials of plans for military intervention in Syria mask operations already ongoing to overthrow Bashar Assad like Muammar Qaddafi.
(See a separate assessment of the Syrian situation in this issue.)
Amid preparations for this eventuality, Khamenei and his aides believe that by publicly owning up to the possession of a nuclear weapon – or actually conducting nuclear tests – Tehran would give the Assad regime a nuclear shield and an extra lease of life of six months to a year.
Iran would also gain time to reorganize the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah for taking on Israel without Syria: Assad's army is too exhausted from months of fighting dissidence at home to join the fight against Israel.
3. The US Presidential Election:
It is feared in Khamenei's circle that President Obama will set out to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities in order to enhance his chances of a second term in the November 2012 election.
Members of the Supreme Ruler's bureau don't believe assertions from Washington that the US administration is standing up to Israel's clamor for military action. They see them as a smokescreen for detailed operational networking in top secrecy. The US official argument that a military strike would delay Iran's nuclear progress by no more than a year or two is seen as a tactic for putting Iran off guard.
In the view of Khamenei's military advisers, US cruise missiles are capable of destroying or irreparably crippling Iran's nuclear installations.
The strategy the Iranians attribute to Washington is simple: A US missile strike on Iran would provoke Iranian counter-strikes against Saudi Arabia and Israel, at the very least. If Tehran shoots missiles at Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Gulf emirates or any other Middle East countries, it would be committing suicide by offering the US and Israel ample grounds for wiping out Iran's entire military infrastructure including its missile launchers, causing the Islamic regime in Tehran to fall.
And if the operation against Iran's nuclear facilities is surgical enough to keep most civilians and strategic infrastructure out of harm's way, Washington would hope for the Iranian people to rise up and topple the regime themselves – or that is how the Supreme Ruler's close aides calculate the thinking in the Obama administration.
However, according to our Washington sources, most US policy makers take the opposite view: they believe the destruction of Iran's nuclear program would push the people back into the regime's embrace.
Counter-arguments to nuclear disclosure
The Security Council Council's report, presented to the Supreme Ruler – and revealed here DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources – argues that full disclosure of a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands would give the international community the legal pretext for acting in concert and with greater vigor than ever before against the Islamic regime until its eventual demise.
Both camps, backers and opponents of nuclear transparency, draw on North Korea to prove their contrary points:
The Khamenei party argues that Pyongyang was able to preserve its rogue regime and gain international respect and benefits only after arming itself with a nuclear arsenal.
The Jalili faction answers back that North Korea has gained nothing from its nuclear status.
In any case, the North Korean case cannot serve Iran as a model because it is far less sensitive than a nation wedged at the heart of the worlds' biggest oil reserves.
But Ayatollah Khamenei reamains unconvinced. His implacable resolve not to give an inch on Iran's nuclear ambitions was underlined in a speech last week when he said: "We are not aggressors. But if Israel or the U.S. decides to attack us, we will break them apart from the inside."
Israel and neighboring Arab countries reject the theory of some Western analysts that this was an empty boast and are taking it seriously as a nuclear threat.
Iran's hardliners take center stage
Reactions from Tehran to the toughening of sanctions in the wake of the IAEA report are uniformly hard line.
The powerful Majlis Speaker Ali Larjani, a former nuclear negotiator said Monday, Nov. 22: "The West knows that we will respond."
Senior military officer Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said Tuesday: "Under the orders of Khamenei, Iran is planning a radical change in its strategic policy in the near future."
As deputy chief of the Iranian General Staff's Intelligence and Operations unit, Gen. Bagheri who is rarely seen in public made this statement to the Iranian parliament.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was told to hold his tongue on the nuclear issue because the Supreme Ruler wants the limelight for himself and has in any case targeted the president and his clique for a purge.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Tehran are convinced that within a few days, Khamenei will wind up the high-key deliberations in progress. He will then brief the nation's leaders on his decision before making it public.