Putin Doesn’t Believe US Will Attack Iran, or that Iran Can Build a Nuclear Bomb

Two Western and Russian intelligence officers happened to attend the same conference in northern Europe this week. When they heard about the other’s presence, each made a beeline to meet. Within an hour, the two were closeted in a quiet corner.

The Russian seemed to have plenty of information he was happy to impart, mainly about the prevailing view in President Vladimir Putin‘s Kremlin office about the Iranian situation.

Some of this information reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive intelligence sources which sum it up as follows:

1. Putin has decided not to allow Iran’s nuclear plant at Bushehr to be completed.

2. Nor will he transfer the nuclear fuel rods that would enable Tehran to extract plutonium for a bomb. Putin believes that by withholding the rods, he has buried Iran’s alternative plan to manufacture a bomb by using plutonium.

3. As for enriched uranium, Russian intelligence is confident that the Iranians lack the technology for producing enough weapons-grade fuel for military purposes at their Natanz plant.

Moscow’s Q.E.D. At this point, Tehran is held back from progressing towards manufacturing a nuclear weapon.

The Russian officer stressed to his Western interlocutor that Tehran’s ambition to acquire its own nuclear weapon is not doubted in Moscow. There is less certainty about its current distance from this goal – or rather, when exactly in the next decade Iran will be within grasping distance of it.

In the view of Russian experts, the P1 centrifuges acquired by Iran are slow and keep on breaking down. The more advanced P2 centrifuges are used goods, bought off the shelf from Pakistan. Their effectiveness is limited because they can’t go on working for long enough stretches of time or at the high speed necessary for producing weapons-grade fuel.


Could Tehran have recruited thousands of nuclear engineers in secret?


The Russian officer quoted often from reports submitted by the nuclear watchdog’s director Dr. Muhammad ElBaradei, who, he said, is better informed than any other nuclear expert on the origins and condition of the centrifuges spinning in Iran’s nuclear installations.

At first, Iran’s apparently inept nuclear activities raised some suspicions in Russian minds that Tehran may be running a clandestine nuclear program camouflaged by the bumbling facade.

But they rejected this theory. The engineers and technicians from Moscow employed at Bushehr worked very closely with their Iranian counterparts. They could not imagine Tehran being capable of secretly recruiting a second team of hundreds if not thousands of nuclear experts and keeping them hidden away.

Neither does Moscow believe that such clandestine activity would have escaped their spy satellite’s intense gaze on Iran. No suspicious traces have so far been picked up.

4. Unless the Russian intelligence officer was shooting his Western colleague a line, all the information reaching Moscow adds up to the conclusion that Tehran is very far from being able to build a nuclear bomb. Moscow deduces that the ayatollahs may be going after a deal with Washington on the lines agreed last month with North Korea: an economic package as the reward for dismantling or halting its nuclear program.

The Russians believe the North Korean claim of a successful underground nuclear test last October was a bluff.

According to the signs picked up in Russia – “And they are closer to our border than anyone but for China” – Pyongyang’s October 2006 explosion was produced by some kind of seismic shock that simulated a nuclear explosion. They still don’t know how the North Koreans pulled it off. And they are not the only ones entertaining suspicions.

CIA director Michael Hayden is quoted as telling a South Korean newspaper, Wednesday, March 28, that North Korea’s nuclear test was a failure and “gives no credence to Pyongyang’s claim to being a nuclear weapons state.”

He had just met South Korean defense minister Kim Jang-soo in Saigon.

U.S. and South Korean officials and experts have said the blast produced a relatively low-yield explosion, and some questioned the North's nuclear capability.

Moscow now suspects Tehran is plotting same stunt, namely staging a subterranean blast that produces a seismic effect which they can claim is nuclear and then cashing in on “dismantling” their facilities.

5. These assessments have convinced Putin that the Americans will not opt for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. He calculates the Bush administration is repeating the game of diplomatic pressure coupled with military threats which brought Pyongyang to heel.


Moscow will sell Iran two more advanced weapons systems


The Russian intelligence officer surprised his Western colleague when he asserted at the end of his aparently-revealing monologue that President Putin, confident the US would not attack Iran, had decided to send Iran very soon two new weapons systems:

The SA-19 Pantsyr S 1 radar command guided, two stage surface-to-air missile mounted on the 2S6 Integrated Air Defense System.

The AT 15 Khrizantema (9M123) system, capable of firing 6-km range supersonic multi-purpose missiles incorporating both radar and laser command guidance receivers.

Asked by the Western intelligence officer why Iran needs these weapons if there is to be no US attack, especially since they could be transferred to such radical Middle East elements as Syria or even the Lebanese Hizballah, the Russian officer had no reply.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources point to several more questions that remain open.

Above all, what has suddenly prompted Putin’s change of heart over not finishing work at the Bushehr reactor and not letting Tehran have nuclear rods? After all, he knew from the start that the reactor was designed as an integral element of Iran’s military program, and yet he insisted in his exchanges with Washington that Bushehr was a peaceful project. And why did he lead the Iranians on into believing that the Russian firm would finish the job?

The rumors swirling around intelligence circles in Europe may go some way to explaining Moscow’s decision. They suggest some sort of deal with the US and the European Union, whereby Russia would back the two Western powers’ Iran policy, including Security Council sanctions, in return for certain concessions.

Moscow would like to have some Western support for the status of breakaway provinces like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and would not be averse to the easing of Western criticism of the human and civil rights situation in Putin’s Russia.

There are more questions than answers regarding the Kremlin’s stance on Iran.

While the Russian intelligence officer may have given his Western colleague food for thought, he is unlikely to have given him a candid view of the thinking behind the walls of the Kremlin, certainly not behind Putin’s poker face.

Therefore, some surprises are undoubtedly in store from Moscow.

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