Tehran Can’t Decide on the Final Leap to the Bomb

The final stage of Iran’s nuclear program, its weaponizing, is in tense discussion in Tehran, with powerful camps ranged on both sides of the argument.

The issue was left pending in Vienna by the International Atomic Energy board’s failure to set a date for referring Tehran’s violations to the UN Security Council. A further board meeting, set for November, will be needed for a timetable.

The dispute over which the Islamic regime in Tehran is split is revealed here in DEBKA-Net-Weekly for the first time.

Our Tehran sources outline the three issues at stake.

1. Having taken their nuclear program so far, Iran’s decision-makers face the tipping point of whether to go all the way to develop nuclear weapons. A decision to start building actual nuclear bombs and warheads for missiles is still up in the air. That is the good news.

2. The bad news is that, once decided, Iran has developed the technology, industry and nuclear scientific structure to implement an affirmative decision.

3. For now, Iran’s leaders, including the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, incline against taking the final leap to the bomb at this time. It is important here to distinguish between acquiring the bomb and acquiring the capability to produce a bomb. That distinction is the sticking-point for the parties to the argument.

4. The newly-elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has set his government the goal of making Iran the dominant Middle East economic and technological power by the year 2025, with the help of developed oil and gas resources. All Iran’s resources must be bent to this goal if it is to be achieved. The manufacture of nuclear weapons would necessitate the diversion of huge sums from economic development.

The back-and-forth dispute in Tehran must have reached the intelligence ears of Washington and its allies in Berlin, Paris and London – hence a certain dilution in the urgency of their drive against Iran’s nuclear activities and the let-up in their determination to force a UN Security Council referral through the nuclear watchdog’s board.

Their efforts to deter Iran have also borne fruit.

The international diplomatic campaign, the threat of international sanctions, and the separatist uprisings stirred up in Iran’s Kurdish and Arab minorities, have combined to give Tehran pause. The ayatollahs are now thinking twice before venturing past the point of no return.

This was confirmed Wednesday, Sept 28, by Israel’s military intelligence chief Maj.-Gen Aharon Zeevi. He reported to a Tel Aviv University audience that the pressure the international community had brought to bear on Tehran had slowed its timetable for acquiring a weapons capability by a year or two.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive Tehran sources describe the factions engaged in the nuclear debate and their reasoning.


A. The Small but Influential Group of Naysayers


This faction, headed by Mustafa Muayan, the reform candidate in the last presidential election, is influential among Iran’s liberals and intellectuals. Its leaders maintain that Iran cannot afford a home-made bomb. Even if the industry solved all the technical problems in creating the manufacturing structure and produced enough enriched uranium, the cost of developing N-bombs for delivery by air or missile would be prohibitive. The Iranian economy would buckle under the burden.


B. The Open Option Advocates


This faction is led by the big loser in the last presidential election, former president Hashem Rafsanjani. He and the influential officials in his party advocate going forward to complete the fuel cycle, including the manufacture and activation of centrifuges to produce enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb – but no further. Rafsanjani offers two reasons for holding back at this point: First, to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States and Europe and the heavy economic price that would be exacted in penalties: and second, Group A’s rationale: the Islamic republic cannot afford the luxury of going nuclear.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts recall that Rafsanjani offered this argument when he campaigned for election earlier this year. It labeled him a moderate and cost him the presidency. The winner, Ahmadinejad and his backer, Khamenei, took the opposition position. That was then, not now.


C. The Brinkmen


Iranian strongman, Ali Khameni, supported by a powerful group of intelligence chiefs, seeks on national security grounds to bring the nuclear program up to the point of a weaponization capability. This would entail preparing all the plans, the materials and the production resources for making the bombs and warheads, but holding back from manufacture. They believe Iran must have the weapons capability, but not necessarily the weapon. This tactic would keep Tehran clear of a collision with America and Europe and free of UN sanctions.


D. The Pro-Nuke Group


The most radical element of the Iranian theocracy, the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, together with the heads of some intelligence agencies, are pushing the regime to go all the way past the capability to an operational nuclear weapon, whatever it takes. They urge a start on the practical planning of nuclear warheads and bombs without waiting for sufficient centrifuges to be available for the production of the necessary quantities of enriched uranium. This way would shorten the process of weaponization.


The consensus that DEBKA-Net-Weekly sees shaping up out of this high-powered debate would be a compromise between Rafsanjani’s Open Option Group and Khamenei’s Brinkmen. Tehran will most likely end up not building a nuclear arsenal for now, but rather developing some of the elements of a weaponization capability. The choice of elements will occasion another tough debate in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic.

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