Tehran has suddenly realized that means are available for disrupting and disabling its nuclear program without a major military attack. This realization struck them with stunning effect on Aug. 17 when the power lines feeding Iran’s Fordo underground uranium enrichment plant were blown up in several places, indirectly destroying hundreds of centrifuges.
This episode was kept dark until Monday, Sept. 17, when Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, chairman of the Iranian atomic commission, turned furiously on the International Atomic Energy Agency at its annual meeting in Vienna and accused the IAEA of being infiltrated by "terrorists and saboteurs.”
He insinuated that international nuclear inspectors were complicit in the attack.
But the Iranian official’s abuse was met with appeasement.
Neither Washington nor any European capital had anything to say, but IAEA Director Yikya Amano came forward to declare the agency’s commitment to further nuclear talks with Iran, while the European Union’s foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton was pleased to announce that negotiations with the six powers would soon be resumed.
Both disregarded the cause of the diplomatic breakdown in July: Iranian intransigence over providing IAEA monitors with access to sites suspected of working on nuclear weapons projects and its refusal to accept any curtailment of the production of highly-enriched uranium.
For Iran, the Fordo attack was a startling eye-opener which confronted its intelligence and security services with five major challenges, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources:
The nuclear facilities’ electricity networks are outdated and vulnerable
1. Tehran understood from the US or Israel – or both – that its nuclear facilities can be shut down without a major air or missile strike on the scale that has stirred wide controversy in the Middle East, the West and inside Israel. The striking down of Fordo’s power lines demonstrated that Iran’s nuclear facilities, however large or deeply buried under ground, can be put out of commission by small special operations units, which Iran fears are already on the spot.
The electricity supplies of those facilities are especially vulnerable because they rely on outdated overhead cables and long lines linking them to remote power stations, because their planners were anxious to cut costs and therefore refrained from sinking power sources and cables underground.
2. The Iranians fear that the Fordo operation was the first in a series of assaults yet to come on their nuclear facilities. They are worried most about undercover special forces shooting laser beams to ignite internal fires.
This suggests what may have happened on Aug. 17, our intelligence sources disclose. The repeated cutoff of current set some of the centrifuges in the underground chambers on fire. The fires were small and quickly extinguished, but the Iranians fear they are an augury of brewing trouble.
3. By blowing up the power lines, the saboteurs also shut down Fordo’s computers and air defense systems, stripping the plant of its defenses against a potential attack.
This came on top of another Iranian worry, that they will have no advance notice of a strike until it is in process. In Sept 2007, the Israelis showed they were able to disarm Syrian radar and early warning systems before destroying the Iranian-North Korean plutonium reactor then under construction in northern Syria.
How did IAEA inspectors find out about the Fordo attack?
4. The Iranians were appalled by the discovery that the attackers had been able to detonate bombs at a number of points along the 40-kilometer line from Fordo to the station supplying it with power at the holy city of Qom, undetected by their police or security services.
They asked themselves what was the point of all their big military exercises, including the one scheduled for October, if the road links between Qom and Fordo are wide open to hostile incursion.
5. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, Tehran has also taken on board the message that Iran would pay dear for any attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, such as mining the Strait or hitting a Western or Arab oil tanker or one of the warships concentrated opposite its shores.
(On Monday, September 17, the US and 25 other nations began the biggest mock mine-clearing exercise ever in the Persian Gulf region)
Iran’s leaders were led to expect that their punishment may come in the form of a surgical US strike on a single Iranian target rather than a full–blown war offensive. They are now postulating that the downing of the Fordo power lines was the work of US covert forces rather than Israeli saboteurs.
This week Tehran sent Abbasi-Davani to Vienna to accuse the IAEA of complicity in the attack.
Without mentioning the United States, he wondered out loud how, just one day after the explosions, when only to a few top Iranians knew about it, nuclear watchdog inspectors were asking for permission to investigate the road from Qom to Fordo.
How did Vienna find out what had happened?