Serious Delays in Nuclear Program Coincide with Supreme Ruler’s Failing Health

The upsets overtaking the highest echelons of the Iran’s clerical regime first broke into the open with the sudden change of guard at the top of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

On Sept. 1, Tehran suddenly announced the removal of Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi and his replacement as chief commander of the IRGC by Gen. Mohammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari.

This abrupt reshuffle was occasioned by certain seismic events rumbling in Tehran, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources enumerate here for the first time.

1. The national nuclear program has fallen badly behind schedule, mainly because of technological hitches in the uranium enrichment process which have left the industry’s heads stumped.

2. Supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 67, is succumbing to ill health and growing weak. This explains his decision to appoint the former president and his close colleague, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, to the number two position in the regime as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the secretive body that chooses or dismisses the Islamic Republic's supreme leader.

Though powerful, this position does not automatically anoint Rafsanjani as successor to the ailing supreme ruler. But it is a setback, as it was meant to be, for his foremost rival, the hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

3. Khamenei was driven to switch around the top command of the Revolutionary Guards by his suspicion that Gen. Safavi and Ahmadinejad were putting their heads together to build an alternative new power center capable of paving the way for a coup to install the Revolutionary Guards in government as sole rulers of Iran.

4. Safavi’s dismissal signaled a general rolling of heads in the IRGC high command. His deputy Maj. Gen. Mortada Rezai, who was widely expected to succeed him as next commander in chief, was not mentioned in the Sept. 1 announcement. The information that his appointment was not renewed was implicit in the new commander, Gen. Jaafari’s statement this week that he has no deputy.


Even under duress, Tehran stays radical


At the changing of the guard ceremony in Tehran this week, the incoming chief was accompanied by the commander of the al Qods Battalion, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is in charge of external terrorist groups operating on behalf of Iran in Iraq as well as Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami.

Addressing the ceremony, Soleimani said: “We can now sense the aroma of shihada (holy martyrdom).

The al Qods Battalion commander’s elevation and his words confirm DEBKA-NetWeekly’s impression in Tehran that, far from turning away from the most radical path, Iran is poised to expand its military operations against the US and Israel at chosen points in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.

The surprise which greeted Safavi’s downfall in Washington indicates how cut off by and large Western intelligence is from the internal affairs in the Iranian capital, even though the United States is locked in mortal combat with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, in Iraq and on other international fronts such as Afghanistan and the Middle East conflict.

It was only this week that US intelligence got wind of Khamenei’s order three months ago to take Rahim Safavi off the nuclear brief. The nuclear desk was transferred to Jaafari, well ahead of his designation as IRGC commander. Safavi’s fall from grace had started in June, but went unheeded.

Western intelligence agencies estimate that Ahmadinejad’s claim this week that 3,000 centrifuges were now working full time and a new cluster was being added each month was more or less accurate. If so, it would imply that Iran had already attained the ability to manufacture enough weapons-grade uranium for one atom bomb per year.

But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, Iran’s home-made P-2 centrifuges are not working in an uninterrupted stream, but keep on stalling. The quantity and quality of the enriched product are therefore below par for producing a functioning nuclear weapon.


Washington and the nuclear watchdog disagree


That the Iranians are stumped by major technical problems was confirmed by UN nuclear watchdog’s inspectors after the visited the Natanz nuclear center some weeks ago. Neither do the inspectors rate very high Iran’s ability to get hold of fissile materials by means other than uranium enrichment, such as plutonium. Here too they appear to be stuck.

This reading of the state of the Iranian nuclear program is fairly similar to that of Washington. Therefore, the controversy between the Bush administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency director Dr, Mohammed ElBaradi, who has left this information out of his public reports, focuses on timing.

Washington believes a breakthrough is only a matter of time; when it happens, Iran will be so close to a weapon that it will be too late to stop the Islamic Republic from springing the news on the world that they have reached their goal.

ElBaradei’s tactics aim at holding back the UN Security Council’s approval of a third round of sanctions. This would give Tehran time and leeway to overcome technical difficulties. However, he justifies his tactics and the withholding of information on the true state of the secret program by maintaining that Iran must be given a way out of its impasse without losing face, i.e. a chance to negotiate a deal for halting its military program from an apparent position of strength without having to admit to its failure.

Therefore, the IAEA director told reporters in London Thursday, Sept 6: “The next couple of months will be critical for Iran to demonstrate its good faith in implementing what it is committed to do. If they do that, I think we will begin to move into a completely different phase.”

However, according to our Tehran sources, the different phase the Iranians have in mind is not ElBaradei’s. The new Revolutionary Guards chief has been instructed to make good use of those “couple of months” to haul the national nuclear program out of the mud and put it back on track, as well as preparing the country for a US military offensive.

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