Intelligence Report: Iran, déjà vu

Benjamin Netanyahu’s $64,000 question – to bomb, or not to bomb Iran’s nuclear weapons program – and if so, when?

The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The hot and humid Israeli summer brings a feeling of déjà vu. Once again, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is beating the drums of war targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And the US once again is showing signs of concern, or at least trying to create the impression that it is concerned by Israel’s renewed rhetoric.
And once again, the US has dispatched its most senior military officer to test and evaluate Israel’s true intentions. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey arrived August 12 as the guest of Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, and met Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. A few days before Dempsey’s arrival, Gen. Mark A. Welsh, chief of staff of the US Air Force, completed a secretive week-long visit to Israel.
Dempsey’s and Welsh’s visits come amid concerns that Israel may (once again) be planning a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, fearing that the US administration will engage with the new Iranian government and forget its promises not to permit Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
In the background is the inauguration of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, who is being touted by some international experts as a relative moderate who may attempt to open a window to the West. Rouhani blotted his “moderate” copybook somewhat when he was quoted two days before his inauguration August 4, by Iran’s ISNA news agency as saying, “The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.” ISNA later toned down Rouhani’s remarks.
Netanyahu, for his part, believes that there is nothing new on the Iranian front and that Rouhani is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing who will continue the nuclear policy of his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As far as the prime minister is concerned, Iranian policy, in any event, is determined by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Over the last four years – though in different seasons – Netanyahu has embarked on the same path, creating the impression that he is going to unleash the Israel Air Force at Iran’s nuclear sites. In September 2012, nearly a year ago, he stood on the podium at the UN General Assembly in New York City and drew his redlines and timetable. Netanyahu warned the world that by the spring or early summer of 2013, at the very the latest, Iran might reach the point at which it could produce sufficient weapons-grade fissile material to manufacture its first nuclear bombs.
Well, here we are, mid-summer 2013, and nothing has happened. Whether it was out of fear of an Israeli or American attack, or out of choice, Tehran did not cross the redlines.
Furthermore, according to Israeli and American intelligence assessments, Iran has yet to produce the required fissile material.
Nevertheless, instead of resting on his laurels and taking credit for the developments, Netanyahu continues to show signs of being obsessed by the Iran threat.
There are, however, some dissenting voices in Israel. “I don’t think that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. Anyone who says it simply dwarfs the IDF. Israel has all the necessary means to defend itself,” former Mossad head Efraim Halevy asserts to The Jerusalem Report.
Halevy believes that Israel should adopt a different policy towards Rouhani’s new government. “Instead of calling them liars, we would do better to strategize our priorities,” he says. “These priorities have to be first that the expected negotiations between the group of six world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program have to be swiftly completed. And secondly, if a deal is struck, it means compromises by all sides. Israel needs to be able to influence the outcome of the negotiation,” he adds.
Netanyahu takes every opportunity to explain to the world the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program – be it at the opening of cabinet sessions, or during meetings with members of the US Congress or other foreign officials. He intends to raise the issue once again in September, in his speech to the UN General Assembly.
But unlike last year, when he spoke primarily about Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities, he will focus this time on Arak, where Tehran is completing the construction of a nuclear research reactor that will be capable in 12 to 24 months of producing plutonium. Plutonium (together with 90 percent enriched uranium) is the required weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu’s renewed campaign was backed by former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who urged Israel, in the Wall Street Journal, to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, stressing the need to do it “yesterday.” And in its news analysis section, the Journal wrote an elaborate piece about Arak, claiming that Iran has recently stepped up construction at the site and creating the impression that this is a new revelation.
The truth, however, is that no exceptional steps have been taken in Arak of late, and the pace of the construction remains more or less in line with Israeli intelligence estimates.
Iran began clandestinely planning the reactor in the late 1990s with an approach to Nikiet, one of the largest nuclear technology and engineering R&D centers in Russia, and a request for assistance with the design of a 40-megawatt-capacity nuclear research reactor, seemingly to produce isotopes for medical treatment. Established to develop nuclear power systems for nuclear submarines, Nikiet also designed the first Soviet nuclear power reactors. To date, Russia denies any involvement in Arak; but Israeli and American sources claim that Nikiet was indeed involved.
Iran’s plans were eventually exposed in August 2002 by representatives of Mujahedine- Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, blacklisted until recently by the US as a terrorist group. According to foreign sources, the information about Arak was given to MEK by Israeli intelligence agents, who thus “laundered” the secret information while protecting their sources.
Construction on the reactor began in 2004, and Iran had no choice at the time but to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to declare the existence of the site and its plans. But two years later, when the UN Security Council imposed its first round of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Tehran used the occasion as a pretext to stop the IAEA inspection of the site.
Thus, Arak nowadays is off limits to IAEA inspectors.
One of the rare voices who tried to alert the international community to the potential danger of the Arak site is US nuclear weapons expert Robert Kelley. “I tried my best to warn of Arak,” he tells The Report in a telephone interview from his home in Vienna.
A renowned international expert on plutonium-based nuclear weapons, Kelley served as a senior manager at the US National Laboratories in Livermore, California, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bombs were produced during World War II.
In his position there, he was also responsible for monitoring the nuclear programs of foreign countries. Though he refuses to elaborate, it appears that Israel’s nuclear program (together with those of India and Pakistan) also came under his watchful eye. In the 1990s, he joined the IAEA, and based on his experience and knowledge, the American expert also says that all those countries eventually developed their nuclear weapons under the shadow of their 40 or so megawatt nuclear reactors arguably constructed for nuclear research. Iraq tried the same path until the Israel Air Force bombed its Osirak reactor near Baghdad, in June 1981.
So why should Iran be different? After all, it did not invent the wheel.
Kelley finds it hard to believe that the Arak reactor is for medical purposes. “The reactor is a strange thing,” he tells me on the telephone.
“It is an unusual decision for a country claiming it is for civilian purposes, because Arak is a heavy water nuclear reactor, situated far from Tehran, the population of which is seemingly the main consumer of its medical product.”
Dr. Kelley, are you basically saying that the Arak reactor is to build nuclear bombs? “Yes, there is the possibility, which has to be considered, that the reactor is for military purposes,” he responds.
Iran declared that the Arak reactor would be operational in 2014, but Kelley has his doubts. “Iran’s major problem is to fabricate the nuclear fuel to run the reactor,” he says.
“For this, it needs zirconium, a material that it has difficulties in purchasing because of the international sanctions.
“It is possible that this time Iran will meet its timetable and Arak will be operational in a matter of months, but it also may take years,” he adds.
So where is all this leading us? To more of the same? More threats and hints of attacks? Probably so.
One senior official in Jerusalem made a point in early August of leaking his assessment that Israel cannot rely on US President Barack Obama’s public declarations that he intends to stop – at almost all costs – Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
So Israel is once again sending signals that it will, if necessary, take military action on its own to derail Iran’s nuclear programs.
The above-ground Arak facility would be a relatively easy target for warplanes and missiles, certainly easier than the Natanz and Fordow sites, which are primarily underground and much harder to destroy.
It is therefore natural for the United States to try to avoid embarking on another war in the Middle East, and to make an effort to negotiate with Iran; and it is only natural for Tehran to try to talk its way out of sanctions, which, Rouhani admits, have been damaging to Iran and its people; and it is also natural for Israeli leaders to remain absolutely determined to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which could endanger the very existence of the Jewish state – as well as permitting Iran to blackmail every nation in the region, including the other major oil producers.
But the $64,000 question remains impossible to answer: Will Israel bomb Iran or not? Most Israeli security experts, and also international observers, tend to assume that the answer is no. Israel will not attack Iran. It is interesting, however, that at least one senior commentator has a different answer. And he is not only a “commentator” in the journalistic sense.
He is US General James Mattis, a real fourstar general, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” and well known for speaking his mind. Up until four months ago, Mattis served as the commander of Centcom (America’s Central Command that covers the entire Middle and Far East) and he fought in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, so he has some expertise in the matter.
“I have no doubt” he said in mid-July at the Aspen Security forum, “that if Israel finds out that Iran is going to produce the bomb, Israel will attack.”