This coming weekend, US and Israeli intelligence eyes will be straining for a sight of a landmark event taking place in Pyongyang: A large Iranian delegation arriving May 26 on a shopping expedition for…nuclear bombs.
Brig. Gen. Ali-Reza Jannati of the Iranian air force will be heading the largest military delegation his government has ever sent to North Korea, including also a group of nuclear arms industry officials.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive US and Israeli military and intelligence sources, Tehran opened the bidding in two months of secret preliminary bargaining with an offer of $1 billion per nuke.
The high points covered by those talks and ready now for the final rounds are revealed here as follows:
1. Iran offered $4 billion for four complete nuclear bombs in operational condition. North Korea agreed to the deal in principle but not the price, and countered with an offer of just two operational nuclear bombs at $2 billion apiece
Western intelligence officials expect Iran to raise its bid to $5 billion for four bombs and North Korea to settle on that price for only three bombs.
2. Our intelligence sources open an astonishing window on the tensions North Korea ramped up recently with the US, Japan and South Korea, starting with the deployment in February of Masudan ballistic missiles in launch mode on its eastern coast, with threats to target the western United States.
It is now believed in Washington and Jerusalem that this show of muscle was part of Pyongyang’s sales pitch for Tehran. The Iranians demanded to see nuclear bombs operational and installed on missiles before taking the negotiations forward and clinching the deal.
North Korea reverts to missile launches to impress Tehran
On April 11, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea might have produced a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto a ballistic missile, but believes it is of low reliability.
This estimate emerged from the testimonies of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey at the tail end of a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon budget.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper downplayed the DIA assessment, saying, "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile." He emphasized that the DIA estimate was not shared by the rest of the intelligence community.
At all events, North Korea refrained from a test launch.
It is not clear whether the Iranians decided to ease up on their demand for a demonstration of the North Korean product’s capability, or whether they were given no choice, when Pyongyang explained that too much heat was coming from Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo plus UN sanctions to make it feasible.
After biding its time, North Korea began firing off a succession of six short-range missiles on Saturday, May 18. Washington, Jerusalem and Seoul suspected that Pyongyang was putting its missiles through their paces for the benefit of the Iranian purchasing mission heading its way – or even demonstrating that it was not cowed by fear of US and South Korea’s warnings.
Some analysts speculated that, after the half-a-dozen short-range launches, North Korea would revert to its threat to test-fire the Musudan ballistic missiles, which sparked the crisis in February.
How Tehran finagled Beijing into putting up the cash
3. To raise the cash for its purchase of North Korean nuclear bombs, we can reveal that Tehran turned to China.
How was this managed?
Under Tehran’s scheme, Beijing was to draw $4 billion from Iranian bank deposits held in Chinese banks and present the money as a gift from the Islamic Republic for Pyongyang to buy food on world markets for the starving people of North Korea. Tehran did not let Beijing know that the money was transferred to pay for its under-the-counter nuclear purchases from Pyongyang.
Chinese intelligence may or may not have caught onto the scheme. At all events, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reveal that it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who gave the game away when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 8-9.
According to those sources, in April, Iranian deposits in Chinese banks totaled $27 billion. Tehran can’t touch this money because it derives from oil payments from Far Eastern governments whose transfer through international banks is blocked by sanctions.
The Chinese nevertheless agreed to release the funds in gradual dollops, provided the US administration didn’t catch on, or if it did, found no evidence of how it was spent.
It was assumed in Beijing and Tehran that the Obama administration would not in the final reckoning make trouble. Washington was now focused on getting interwoven negotiations underway with Tehran on the Iranian nuclear issue and the Syrian conflict. If those talks made progress, Washington would turn a blind eye to China’s release of funds to Iran, as a kind of gesture for tempting Tehran to look forward to the easing of sanctions, in return for concessions on the two issues – or so Chinese and Iranian officials believed.
Iranian supertankers for secretly transporting the nukes
4. Meanwhile, the West had to be kept from finding out about the Iranian-North Korean nuclear bomb transactions, lest the full weight of US ire and sanctions landed on both their heads.
To keep the secret hidden, another subterfuge was cooked up: Instead of concealing its nuclear progress, Tehran would engage in a double bluff by leaking false information to the West pretending that Iran had performed a major leap and already assembled a number of nuclear bombs.
This trick would catapult Iran into membership of the exclusive world nuclear club. The West would have to abandon the sanctions which failed in their purpose of deterrence and the world powers would treat the new nuclear power with due respect.
Tehran’s first demand would be the cancellation of the financial penalties bringing the revolutionary economy to the verge of collapse.
In any case, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, both appeared to have lost their fear of direct American action. Neither believes that, even if he does tumble to their nuclear dealings, President Barack Obama will go to war against their nuclear programs.
5. They therefore forged ahead and covered enough areas of accord to be ready for a practical decision on how to deliver the merchandise when the Iranian delegation arrives in Pyongyang next week.
Tehran favors concealment of the nuclear bombs inside the Iranian supertankers which now bring oil to North Korea on a regular basis.
Pirating the captured US RQ-170’s stealth technology
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources say the recent trip to Tehran by a North Korean energy mission led by Crude Oil Industry Minister Pae Hak initiated their review on ways to transfer nuclear bombs purchased by Tehran by supertankers.
Iranian marine engineers have been put to work on converting the tankers to accommodate their nuclear cargoes. They are assisted by intelligence experts, experienced in devising camouflage and decoy tricks for sneaking weapons systems and troop movements past US and Israeli satellites.
The Iranians believe their capture – and reverse engineering – of the US Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone in Dec. 2011 put them ahead of the concealment game.
The US has never credited their claim that they commandeered and downed the UAV intact by means of cyber warfare techniques. Now, the Iranians boast they have cracked the drone’s secret monitors for detecting the presence of nuclear materials.
On May 9, Tehran unveiled the latest of its homemade unmanned aircraft, designated “Mehaseh” (Epic in Farsi). Iran's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said "This aircraft with its stealth quality can avoid detection by the enemy."
Other Iranian sources claimed the drone has been outfitted with the advanced technologies ransacked from the US RQ-170.
Doubling up on the effort for an impressive nuclear arsenal
So why does Iran need the North Korean warheads if it already possesses the technology, materials, manpower and knowledge for assembling bombs on its own?
Speculation in US and Israeli intelligence experts monitoring the Iranian nuclear program is divided between three schools of thought:
a) One view is that the Iranian nuclear industry has run into technological problems which are holding up its timetable for assembling a bomb. Teheran suspects the Israeli Mossad or American CIA of planting flawed materials or components into its nuclear program for sabotaging its computer systems, so that when the bomb is assembled, it won’t work.
b) Another school of thought suspects Iran is cheating again. The Obama administration insists US intelligence is capable of pinning down the moment when Iran starts building a nuclear bomb, so that the US can exercise its military option.
But how would Washington’s calculus work if that moment never came, because Iran had gained possession of a complete nuke without going through the process of building one?
c). A third view holds that Ayatollah Khamenei plans to use the purchases from North Korea to fast-forward Iran’s progress toward an impressive nuclear arsenal.
Iran would manufacture two or three nuclear bombs itself and procure three or four more from Pyongyang, ending up with six or seven devices in short order.
A nuclear arsenal on this scale would place Iran on a much more elevated strategic footing than just a couple of nukes.