Despite its apparent surrender to Western pressure, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran confirm Iran is still doing what it does best: playing for time. Iran’s rulers have no intention of giving up uranium enrichment or abandoning their nuclear bomb project.
They have perfected the technique for fending off direct threats.
The show of Iranian-European optimism was adroitly staged. The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany held up their “last-ditch” mission to Tehran as a victory after obtaining the consent of Iran’s president Mohammad Khatami to signing the protocol authorizing the international nuclear energy agency to carry out unannounced inspections of all the country’s nuclear sites.
Before flying out on October 22, the trio took center stage at Tehran’s international airport to proclaim that Iranian leaders had also agreed to voluntarily freeze the uranium and reprocessing operations essential for the manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Twenty-four hours later, Iranian nuclear documentation landed on the desks of the International Atomic Agency in Vienna, beating the October 31 deadline for coming clean on its nuclear activities by eight days.
Washington remained unconvinced by Iran’s promises and gestures and announced the October 31 deadline for fully leveling on its nuclear programs still stands. Iran’s extraordinarily subtle shifts for concealing its program and keeping it safe from both attack and scrutiny are not lost on the Americans – unlike the Europeans.
The documents that landed Thursday in Vienna were short of two vital elements: The names of the suppliers of Iran's centrifuges and its nuclear materials. Unlike the Europeans, Washington complains of hard questions that are unaddressed about the plutonium production at Bushehr which it rate of higher importance than even the centrifuges.
The Americans would have known that the European triumphant sendoff at Tehran airport was just a sideshow. The real action was taking place in a much quieter corner of Tehran airport, where Iranian officials discreetly greeted the arrival of Pakistan’s prime minister Zufarullah Khan Jamali.
In town ostensibly for trade talks, the Pakistani leader’s real mission was diplomatic. He had brought Iran’s rulers an explanation for President Pervez Musharraf’s promise to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah during his rose petal-strewn visit to Islamabad last weekend of a Pakistani nuclear umbrella to deter a potential Iranian nuclear threat to the kingdom.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that Jamali did not deny the news outright. He only assured his Iranian hosts that strong strings had been attached to the deal. Pakistan would come to the aid of Saudi Arabia only if the House of Saud were to be attacked directly – as it was during the 1979 revolt at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, or if any forces, domestic or external, brought harm to Saudi oil fields. Pakistan was willing to pledge troops and a nuclear umbrella in either contingency, the Pakistani prime minister said.
“Militarily, rushing Pakistani troops to the Arabian Peninsula presents no real difficulty,” he explained. “When it comes to the second matter – you know what we are talking about.”
This was a strong hint at Pakistan’s most sensitive secret: the true state of its nuclear capabilities.
Although Pakistan has been hailed for developing the first Muslim or Sunni atomic bomb, as well as for its know-how in nuclear weapon construction, it is still short of the finished product: nuclear warheads that can be delivered by air or missile.
Intelligence reports alluding to a Pakistani arsenal of 35 to 50 nuclear bombs are, according to the latest information from DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts, science fiction. Pakistan does have several nuclear devices that can be detonated by remote control, but its possession of complete nuclear bombs or warheads is extremely doubtful.
Pakistani collaboration with Iran looks therefore like a two-way street.
The Bush administration’s all-out battle against Tehran joining the nuclear club has a second, undisclosed motive. It is the fear of Pakistan hitching a ride on Iran’s ambitious attempts to construct a bomb. Once the Iranians reach target, the Pakistanis will not be far behind.
The timing is very tight. Israeli army intelligence chief, General Aharon Farkash Zeevi, in his report to the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee Tuesday, October 21, allowed no more than a 10-month window for stopping Iran’s headlong advance towards a nuke bomb. After that it will be too late for diplomacy.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources disclose clandestine nuclear interaction between the two countries going back years. Teheran has occasionally put up substantial funds for Islamabad’s atomic program. Over the past year, Pakistan transferred to Iran several models of uranium enrichment centrifuges built with Pakistani technology together with spare parts from China.
Pakistan has high hopes of Iran delivering on the final technology once its own bomb is a reality. Musharref was therefore anxious to make sure Tehran understood that the nuclear assistance he had offered Riyadh related in fact to a threat from Israel – not Iran.
The discovery that Pakistan, the nuclear power, is not entirely what it seems, may have impelled India to come forward this week to chance its hand at new peace gestures.
Intelligence experts studying Iran’s nuclear program have been amazed to discover a veritable maze. They have come to suspect the Iranians of running several parallel nuclear programs simultaneously. Just how many is anyone’s guess.
“You can count on the fingers of both hands the number of people inside Iran who know how many nuclear programs are going at full strength – and I might be over-estimating,” one expert told our sources.
By spending an astronomical $10 billion, the Islamic Republic has established a multi-layered nuclear bomb enterprise, designed on the principle that if one project is exposed – or bombed – their mirrors carry on. This tactic renders plans to bomb the program out of existence at one fell swoop virtually unfeasible.
All the laboratories and facilities are duplicated; every team of scientists, engineers and technicians has a “replacement group”. Neither knows the other exists. Some parts of the program are duplicated three or four times over.
The redundancy factor renders moot the question of whether Iran will attain the bomb when the Bushehr nuclear reactor is completed in 2005 or 2007. Tehran does not need the Bushehr reactor to build a weapon.
The same can be said for uranium-enrichment centrifuges. The Iranians have designed a unique type of underground bunker in which hundreds of thousands of centrifuges can function simultaneously. From what we have gleaned of its nuclear plans, Iran’s has no need of more than 50,000 centrifuges to procure sufficient weapons-grade uranium. Why then build facilities to house more than 300,000 – or, according to one estimate, up to 450,000 centrifuges? Satellite surveillance and ground surveillance show no more than 160 are operational as yet, meaning Iran's promise to the European ministers to suspend nuclear enrichment is meaningless; it has not started.
The answer to these mysteries is Iran’s strategy of duplication.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal the four-part compromise that the German, French and British foreign ministers brought to Tehran on Monday, October 20 on behalf of the IAEA:
An immediate halt to all Iran’s uranium enrichment activity.
Access for the nuclear watchdog to verify the halt.
A break in Iran’s so-called “nuclear cycle”. Tehran will choose which project it is willing to suspend and notify the international agency.
Acceptance of these terms will result in the postponement of the IAEA deadline for a full accounting and pledge to sign the Additional Protocol. Tehran will win three weeks of grace from October 31 to November 20.
Iranians consent to tougher IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities fell short of the required concessions and amounted to a rejection of the EU foreign minister’s four-part plan. Iran merely signaled its willingness to discuss some of its aspects.
Khatami made no secret of this virtual rejection when he said on Wednesday, October 23:
“The current situation resembles a multi-event sports competition. In the first event, a boxing match, we’re not evenly matched in the ring, so we have to narrow the odds a bit before we move on to the next competition – the marathon. All we need is plenty of stamina in order to reach the finishing line.”
The Iranians also did their homework well in advance of the foreign ministers’ visit and studied their respective weak points.
All three are keen on bilateral and European Union commercial ties with Iran, which they rate more highly than their future prospects with Iraq. The Iranians took into account that, like the Chinese and Pakistanis, German and French companies had also sold them advanced centrifuge technology. They knew that this piece of information, the French and German foreign ministers, Dominique de Villepin and Yoshke Fischer, would at pains to keep back from their British colleague Jack Straw. They feared London would instantly pass the information to Washington.
While Khatami portrayed Iran as the underdog in the standoff with the Europeans and IAEA, the ayatollahs made sure never to lose the whip hand.
Now, they will make a great show of quickly signing the Additional Protocol to relieve some of the international pressure. But, like other governments, the Islamic Republic will drag its feet on ratification, slowing down the AP’s passage through the legislature (majlis) and keeping everyone waiting for its final signature by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To avert a showdown with the United States and the threat of a UN Security Council debate on sanctions, Iran’s clerical rulers may even eventually open up some of their nuclear facilities to IAEA inspections. However, no more than one layer or set of facilities will be displayed, a fragment of the vast system of secret, mirror sites that will remain closed to prying eyes.
By the time they come to be uncovered, Iran will have produced the first Shiite Muslim bomb.
For the second time in two years, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon publicly suggested that Libya would be the first Arab state to go nuclear, beating Iran to the punch.
In his comments to foreign diplomats on October 14, 2003, Sharon said: “One would not be surprised if Libya were to be the first Arab country to gain nuclear weapons.”
His use of the plural suggested that Libya was developing more than one bomb or nuclear weapons system.
In an article published on September 6, 2002 — two days after Sharon first spoke about Libya’s nuclear ambitions — DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reported extensively on Libya’s underground atomic weapons development and production facility, one of the biggest in the world, which has been located at the al-Kufra desert oasis across from Egypt’s Aswan dam. The Israeli prime minister would clearly not have gone out on the limb on the Libyan nuclear issue before an audience that included US ambassador Dan Kurtzer without solid intelligence information on the inner workings at the Libyan site.
In the year since our article (“Egypt Arranged Iraqi Scientists’ Employment”) appeared, much progress has been made in the development of a Libyan nuclear bomb and warheads.
Some 350 scientists, engineers and nuclear technicians from Pakistan and North Korea have joined the more than 1,200 scientists, including 300 to 400 Iraqis, at the facility. Saddam Hussein is still paying his nuclear experts their salaries, apparently out of a fund intelligence sources believe he set up in the Far East months before the US invasion of Iraq.
Sharon based his comments on an Israeli intelligence assessment that Libya could take the world by surprise with a nuclear test at a time that the international community and the United States were focused on North Korea and Iran.
According to Israeli intelligence, North Korea and Pakistan are using al-Kufra for some of their nuclear weapons development. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria are footing the bill for running the facility, which includes uranium enrichment machinery. That being the case, why did Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah appeal to Pakistan’s Musharraf for nuclear cover, rather than to his old friend, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi?