The United States has been uncommonly deadpan on Iran’s ambitious nuclear weapons program, for fear of upsetting the Washington-Tehran understandings reached secretly on Iraq.
Back in October and November 2002, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 82 and 85 exposed the lively Iranian-North Korean nuclear relationship that gave both members of the “axis of evil” atomic bomb-building capability. But while Washington is prepared to corroborate the estimates of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts – that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is in the process of building four to six new nuclear bombs, in addition to the two to four already in hand – weapons he is offering to the highest bidder on the international market – the Iranian bomb might as well not exist for all the acknowledgement coming out of Washington.
It is still not clear whether North Korea owns all the bombs in its possession. Some intelligence quarters hold that some of the devices are Iranian.
One intelligence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked this week to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction is epitomized in the Iranian-North Korean nuclear story.” This is how he it how he described it as evolving.
“In mid-August 2002, Ala Reza Jaafazadeh, a leader of the armed Iranian opposition group, Mujahideen a-Khalq, went to Washington. He made the rounds of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, laying before them the most exact particulars known to this day of Iran’s nuclear facilities — including the uranium enrichment and bomb-making processing taking place at the clandestine Natanz and Arak sites.
(These facilities were exhaustively detailed – with their locations and names of their directors – in: “Korean Nukes-Made in Iran”, appearing in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 82 on November 15, 2002).
With hindsight, the source remarked: “Had the Americans been prepared to listen then to what Jaafazadeh had to say, there would still have been time to avert certain unfortunate developments.”
Since then, much has changed: Mujahideen a-Khalq leaders are no longer persona grata in Washington. Indeed, its fighting strength based in Iraq is under instructions from Saddam Hussein to set the oil fields of Kirkuk on fire when the American assault begins.
Inspections too late to unearth evidence
Had Washington been more receptive at the time, the Iranian-North Korean nuclear connection would have come to light earlier. That information was essentially available to the Americans in July 2002 – when reports started filtering in on the visit Kim-Jung Nan, nicknamed Mr. NN, or North-Nuclear, paid that month to Libya, Syria and Iran (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 75, September 6, 2002).
“The knowledge of Iran’s nuclear weapons program then might have deterred Washington from entering into long-term strategic arrangements with the Islamic Republic. Today, these arrangements constrain US, depriving the Bush administration of the freedom to inhibit or destroy Iran’s weapons program. Matters might not have reached the ironic juncture whereby Mohamed El-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), finally pays a visit Tehran at the head of a delegation of agency experts on February 21, a visit that takes place far too late in the day. In any case, ElBaradei, soft-nosed in his approach to nuclear inspections in Iraq, can be expected to be equally forgiving towards Iran. Given his inspection technique of focusing on the small picture, the Iranians will not find it too hard to slip their illegal manufacturing equipment past him, making sure the evidence of their violations never comes to light.
Jaafazadeh’s presentation last August in Washington, though revealing, omitted two key factors: Iran’s nuclear partnership with North Korea and the existence of an important nuclear site at Moallem-Kalayeh.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, this top- secret site is located about 100 km (60 miles) north of Teheran in one of the deepest tunnels of the Alborz Mountains. Dismantled nuclear weapons are stored there, with Iranian technicians toiling on each piece to improve its performance. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that although the United States and others have informed ElBaradei of the site’s existence and its purpose several times, he has shown no interest or asked to be admitted to the site.
The conventional wisdom in Washington has long been that ElBaradei slanted his inspection reports in Teheran’s favor. His sympathy may now be coming to an end. The first storm signals surfaced this week when the nuclear inspector and officials in Tehran were clearly at loggerheads.
The Iranian government claimed to have voluntarily invited ElBaradei for his visit this Friday. He reports that the Iranians were forced to receive him willy-nilly after two large installations came to light under construction at the secret sites of Natanz and Anan. The IAEA approached Iran and demanded immediate access to the sites, especially after US satellites photographed irregular and suspicious activities around the facilities. Iran refused the demand claiming the two sites were outside the international atomic agency’s mandate.
A month ago, ElBaradei again demanded his inspectors be afforded access. The Iranians stalled, buying the weeks they needed to whisk away the incriminating equipment and evidence, on the pretext that president Mohammad Khatami was to visit India and the inspections would have to await his return.
Advance on N-bomb unstoppable
Iran’s national security council has held several long meetings in recent weeks to weigh the pros and cons of the country’s nuclear bomb development program. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Iran report the discussions touched on three main points:
1. The acquisition of a nuclear bomb would help Iran realize the dream cherished by Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and his successor Ali Khamenei of taking its place as leader of the Muslim world.
2. Iran cannot afford to drop out of the nuclear race when Pakistan, India and Russia have the bomb, Iraq is on the way to building a nuclear device, Turkey shelters under NATO’s nuclear umbrella and Israel possesses an alarming nuclear capability.
3. Iran feels persecuted by the territorial claims of most of its neighbors and its unique quality as a Shiite Muslim theocracy whose population is a hodgepodge of non-Arab minorities – Persians, Kurds, Turkmenis, Baluchis and others.
The Russians covet access to the warm waters of the Gulf.
The Pakistanis entertain claims to Baluchistan.
Turkmenistan is eager to annex the Turkmeni enclave of northeastern Iran.
Azerbaijan has its eye on Iranian Azerbaijan.
Iran’s Kurds seek independence.
The Arabic speakers of southern Iran do not hide their sympathy with the Arab-Iraqi cause – at Iran’s expense.
4. Iran can ward off all these claims by becoming a nuclear power. Acquiring the bomb might also gain for the regime some respect and an upsurge of patriotism from a population growing weary of mullah rule and economic hardship. Members of Iran’s security council noticed that crowds of Pakistanis took to the streets to celebrate when their government announced it had built a nuclear bomb. Iran’s right to atomic arms is supported by even the most antagonistic Iranian opposition factions.
CIA director George Tenet made this point in his recent Congressional testimony. He said any Iranian government, whatever its political leanings, would seek to develop a nuclear device.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts report that the security council in Tehran wound up its consideration of the nuclear issue with a decision to advance on this goal with all speed, regardless of the strain on the national budget and the diplomatic fallout.
When they realized the international inspectors were coming, the Iranians decided that their most urgent task was to organize a cover-up. North Korean scientists were urgently invited to Tehran to advise how best to camouflage nuclear weapons production plants. Iranian embassies in the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were instructed to recruit nuclear scientists and offer them attractive terms.
To face the immediate crisis, Iran’s national security council decided to throw the inspectors a bone by admitting to the construction of two uranium enrichment centers at Esfahan and Kashan. Khamenei approved the decision, reasoning that, after absorbing the initial shock of this disclosure, the world would quickly turn to more pressing matters amid the gathering war clouds over Iraq.
More help from North Korea
IAEA guidelines do not expressly forbid the construction of uranium enrichment facilities and the agency is not licensed to close them down. What is closely controlled is the disposition of the nuclear waste generated in the process. Iran plans at least five more reactors capable of generating about 6,000 megawatts of electricity. The waste from those reactors would enable Iran to build several nuclear bombs a year.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts report that Iran, with the help of North Korean scientists, is also examining a plan to build portable “homemade bombs”, small enough to fit into a suitcase. Iran has been discussing these devices with the Russian scientists it has recruited.
Also on the drawing board in Tehran are “dirty bombs”. These radiological devices have a limited radius of effectiveness – an urban neighborhood or street. They are primarily weapons of deterrence, not likely cause mass casualties on a scale that would precipitate an annihilating retaliation.
Noting the worldwide panic against possible Iraqi mega-terror attacks – and taking a page out of North Korea’s book of defiance – Teheran has of late adopted a threatening posture to meet any American steps to thwart its goals. Even without a nuclear capability, Iran commands a threat to the West in the shape of a dynamic ballistic missile development program. Although the Shehab-3 missile’s electronic guidance and targeting problems have still be to sorted out, Iran recently went into the practical stage of developing the 5,000-km (3,000-mile)-range Shahab-4. At the same time, tests are going forward on the enlargement of Shahab-3 warheads for delivering a nuclear payload.
The approaching visit by ElBaradei has placed the IAEA and Tehran on a collision course. The IAEA intended demanding Iran’s signature on a new annex to the inspections treaty allowing the agency’s inspectors to descend on the country without prior notice and tour all nuclear-related sites. The European Union, which is dismayed by reports that Iran intends to give its Shahab-4 enough of a kick to target Western Europe, echoes this demand.
It looks as though the IAEA finally means business after years of burying its head in the sand and confining its inspections to Iran’s declared nuclear sites — the reactor under construction at Bushehr and the small, 40-year-old research reactor at Esfahan.