Stalled Uranium Enrichment Process Prompts Strong Call in Tehran for Temporary Suspension

Tehran’s provocative stance may be a facade for genuine fear of an American attack.

Wednesday, April, 6 Russian specialists at Iran’s nuclear plant in Bushehr woke up to a sudden roar of artillery.

Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Russia’s atomic agency Rosatom, complained later that tests of what he believed were air defense rockets were carried out at 5 a.m. near the plant where 2,000 Russians are employed. The Russians were not warned about the missile practice, said the Rosatom official. They were woken up by the noise “which created tension on the site and disrupted the work.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources detect three intriguing disclosures in the Russian spokesman’s complaint:

1. Tehran’s political and military chiefs took seriously the Russian reports which predicted a possible US attack on Iranian nuclear sites on Good Friday, April 6.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 295 of March 30: Scaring up a US Threat to Make Tehran Lean on Russia).

The Iranians were scared enough not to be satisfied with placing the air defense missiles guarding Bushehr on the alert; they fired them just in case any aircraft had ventured into the airspace over the facility – and gave the Russians a good fright.

2. Some 2,000 Russian nuclear engineers and technicians are hard at work at Bushehr.

This disclosure flatly contracts the claims from Moscow that Russian personnel employed in Iran were on their way home. It also flies in the face of a Russian intelligence opinion passed privately to a Western colleague that President Vladimir Putin does not intend to finish work at the Bushehr reactor.

(See DNW 295 of March 30).


Even Ahmadinejad pulls his punches


3. Russia’s intelligence and foreign ministry’s propaganda machines are engaged in a huge effort to manufacture information, often misleading, about Iran’s nuclear program.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources add that while Tehran is plunged deep in military preparations to repel a possible American attack, the Shiite rulers may in fact be jittery enough to be persuaded to suspend their enrichment activities for at least a year or two.

In order not to lose face, they may not announce this publicly, but prefer to pass the word through intelligence or indirect channels – possibly Russian or Chinese, like North Korea.

Even the fire-eating president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had to pull his punches at the national energy celebrations that took place in Natanz on April 9. Instead of the promised glad tidings, Iran was described loosely as achieving achieved “industrial scale” production of enriched uranium.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources report that the president was held back from specific boasts by the top-secret debate exercising the clerical rulers in Tehran, which flared before the Natanz ceremonies and is still unresolved.

The questions batted to and fro between the rival factions are weighty:

1. The technical problems stalling the full activation of the centrifuges for uranium enrichment still have Iran’s engineers stumped. Ahmadinejad was forced to put off the announcement of 3,000 centrifuges in operation – and not for the first time. In February, he promised to bring “good news” on the Persian New Year on March 21. He put it off to the first week of April and the news has still not materialized.

Vice President Ghjolam-Reza Aghazadeh fudged his reply to a question after the Natanz ceremony by saying that the issue was no longer the 3,000 centrifuges, but the assembly of 50,000! The Islamic Republic, he declared, brooked no compromise on this. Asked why he omitted reference to the 3,000 centrifuges in his speech, the vice president explained that any such reference would have been taken to mean that Iran had stopped at this figure and would go no further.

Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was the only speaker in Natanz to mention the magic number. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has installed 3,000 centrifuges and begun feeding them with uranium hexafluoride gas,” he said

Our sources note he said “installed;” but not activated.

Iran’s leading officials can continue to bluff the nation, but the UN nuclear watchdog and its inspectors are another matter.


Enrichment is stalled and sanctions take toll


2. Our intelligence sources reveal that in the running-in tests conducted in the second half of March, the steel blades of 12 of the advanced P-2 centrifuges were damaged at the speed of 1,500 revolutions per minute and the trial halted. The more primitive P-1 machines can only reach a slow 200 circuits/minute.

Supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his senior adviser former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and Larijani favor a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment to sort out the problem. This will give Iran time to buy better-quality blades, preferably from Germany, provided the international hue and cry against Iran’s nuclear program calms down. Even North Korea has dropped out as the source of help in solving the problem.

3. The UN Security Council is progressively hardening its penalties. It will not be long before sanctions bring the Iranian economy to collapse, confronting the regime with the specters of bankruptcy and a popular uprising. The Iranian people have proved in the past that they can live with tyranny and repression – but not material hardship.

4. Notwithstanding Iran’s military hyperactivity and fierce threats to would-be assailants, chiefly the US and Israel, the Islamic Republic lacks the military capabilities for withstanding a full-scale military offensive. Against such an assault, the country would have to fall back on the terrorist networks established across the Middle East to disable its enemies by striking at soft targets.

This core military weakness is offered by the supreme ruler’s faction as a compelling argument for accepting a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment until the technical difficulties are overcome and the apparently imminent danger of a US attack recedes.

In the last two weeks, Tehran climbed down on the issue of the 15 British sailors and marines captured on March 23 in northern Persian Gulf waters.

Instead of letting them go, Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards chief Yahya Rahim-Safavi were all for provoking the UK – and the US in its wake – into a limited military showdown now in the Gulf, in which Iran would have had the edge. Their stratagem flopped. Tehran is left with the option of a large-scale confrontation against the full might of the United States, which the Islamic Republic cannot win, or abandoning its nuclear aspirations.

This recognition is gaining ground in Tehran although the debate continues.

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