In his press statement on Wednesday, December 22, Iranian intelligence minister Ali Younessi shed very little light on an earlier claim of an alleged nuclear spy ring.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran watchers find these wild, unverifiable allegations by Islamic Republic officials deeply disturbing. They fuel longstanding fears that the regime will again make its 23,000-strong Jewish community a scapegoat, recalling the 1999 arrest of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel. Some observers fear that this time, the Iranians will try to hold the entire Jewish community hostage to ward off their worst nightmare, a pre-emptive Israeli strike to destroy their nuclear weapons facilities.
In the first Iranian statement on spies, government spokesman Abdollah Ramezan-Zadeh, claimed the arrest of eight people allegedly spying for Israel.
In the second statement, Younessi raised the number to 10 and reported they had been detained in Tehran and in the southern Hormozgan province – site of the Russian-built Bushehr reactor — during the Iranian year that began last March 21.
On another occasion, he said the spies were military officers, nuclear workers and others and they were arrested over several years. The information they passed to the United States and Israel Younessi termed ‘worthless.”
Why then the hue and cry now?
Our experts and sources in Tehran detect a rather pathetic cock-and-bull story, which has been concocted partly to draw attention away from the interception of dozens of Iranian agents in the United States and elsewhere planning attacks against Israeli consulates (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported exclusively last week.)
However, there may be more behind it.
Younessi claimed that only three of the 10 arrested “spies” worked for National Atomic Energy Organization. The first statement cited eight detainees working for Israel. Another official statement said four were to stand trial. The intelligence chief who added the CIA to Israel’s Mossad also refused to name the spies until the cases against them had been drawn up.
These statements convey the impression that the Iranian authorities are deliberately keeping things vague and confused. Our Iran experts evaluate this tactic as prompted by grave internal dissent.
Regime Shows Signs of Stress
A. Iranians in high places are in a genuine panic over suspected leaks of their nuclear secrets. They fear Israel and the United States know a lot more about their nuclear weapons program than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been allowed to find out. The regime’s two main political camps, the hardliners and the reformists, are at each other’s throats, each blaming the other for letting nuclear secrets reach the “Zionist entity” and the “Great Satan”. Manufacturing a spy scare seemed to be the perfect solution.
B. Iran’s nuclear negotiators are fiercely attacked by every political grouping and medium in the country for making too many concessions to the Europeans and the IAEA and spilling atomic secrets. They are even accused of treason by some of the radicals. It had become imperative to defuse the crisis; what better device than a fake spy scandal?
The truth is that plenty of countries are running spies for real to dig out information on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel and the United States are not alone in their concern over the Islamic Republic’s drive for a nuclear bomb and its Shahab missile program. Europe is in range of the Shehab-4 and so, ironically, is Iran’s biggest nuclear helper, Russia.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Japan is also in the market for confidential data on Iran’s nuclear progress. It should come as no surprise that dozens of agents from a score of countries are on Tehran’s case, bidding to recruit Iranian scientists.
But their quest is all but impossible.
Close tabs are kept on all scientific staff by Iran’s general intelligence services, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei‘s private agencies and the counterintelligence arms of the dread Revolutionary Guards. They have combined to make it impossible for nuclear program scientific personnel to flee the country or contact foreign agents.
This surveillance was further tightened after the exclusive disclosure by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 177, on November 15, 2004, of a failed bid by two Iranian nuclear scientists to defect via Syria. Damascus returned them to Tehran. They were interrogated and the guard doubled on colleagues and their families, hostages against more defections.
In an interview to the Al Arabiya satellite TV this week, IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei declared firmly that Europe and the United States are determined not to let Iran carry out uranium enrichment and build a nuclear bomb. ElBaradei contradicted Iran’s claim that Europe had consented to a six-month suspension of enrichment. He insisted that the freeze was permanent although he did not rule out the possibility of Iran carrying out limited activity in secret.
Tehran feels its program is racing against the clock. In six months time, the UN watchdog plans to amend the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by adding a clause prohibiting countries not yet capable of nuclear fuel production from attaining this capability.
For Iran and Brazil, this will be a cruel setback, since both have sunk fortunes in nuclear fuel programs. Tehran already finds itself caught between the urge to hurry its weapons program along and the fear of bringing down on its head economic sanctions or a military strike by Israel or the United States.