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Threat Confirmed, But Not Confronted

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released its long-awaited report on Iran’s nuclear program last week confirming that its monitors had found convincing evidence refuting Iran’s long discredited assertions that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Still using overly cautious language, the report voiced “serious concerns” that Iran is secretly working toward building a nuclear bomb. In an explicit and authoritative summation, the UN report described a structured, focused and secretive effort by Iran to master the technology needed to master all aspects of nuclear weapons development, including the technology needed to trigger a nuclear explosion, and to fashion a nuclear warhead for its long range missiles.

The highly anticipated report was submitted to the nuclear agency’s 35-nation board of directors. Its release led to renewed threats of more international sanctions and possible military strikes to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Even as the report was being finalized in Vienna, a series of leaks from the IAEA’s intelligence dossier reinforced concerns that Iran was edging closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

The published report cited “credible” intelligence provided by 10 countries and confirmed by IAEA inspectors over many months. “The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” the report said using uncharacteristically blunt language.

Although some of the Iranian nuclear development work “was halted in 2003 by order of the country’s top leaders, key research projects appear to have been shifted to civilian institutions and “may still be ongoing,” the report said. It expressed uncertainty about whether the other phases of Iran’s weapons research is still continuing, and suggested that Iran is still experiencing problems with its production of enriched uranium. It said that the output of Iran’s main uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz has held steady or fallen in recent months, a phenomenon that nuclear experts attribute to aging or shoddy equipment and the lingering effects of a 2009 Stuxnet computer virus attack engineered by Israel.

 

IRAN ADAPTING ITS MISSILES TO CARRY NUKES

 

The report said that Iranian scientists were redesigning the warheads of Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles to fit the dimension of the nuclear trigger devices they were developing. The missiles have a range of 1250 miles, long enough to reach Israel and most of Europe. The Iranians have made no secret about what they intend to use the missiles for. In Iranian military parades, the missiles are displayed wrapped in banners which read: “Wipe Israel off the map.”

 

The IAEA included an unusual, 14-page annex to its report describing in sometimes minute detail how Iranian scientists pursued highly specific information, skills and materials used in nuclear warhead design. It was based up more 1,000 pages of Iranian documents and reports that were judged by UN inspectors to be “sufficiently comprehensive and complex” to be genuine, the report said.

 

The documents enabled the IAEA to reconstruct a secret command structure overseeing Iranian work ranging from uranium-metal fabrication to the design of an underground chamber where tests could be conducted. It also presents evidence that Iran has procured parts and technical help from other countries, including the assistance of a Russian nuclear weapons scientist who provided expertise on nuclear detonation issues.

 

OLD ACCUSATIONS NOW PROVEN

 

Many of the accusations about the Iranian nuclear program contained in the IAEA report are not new. Some originated with data found on an Iranian notebook computer discovered in 2004, and have been expanded since then by reports from various sources. What is unique about the report is the extent to which those accusations have now been documented in detail.

 

While more forceful than past reports, the IAEA document was still cautious in drawing firm conclusions. However, David Albright, a former UN nuclear inspector who now runs a leading Washington think tank on weapons of mass destruction, called the new evidence in the report “pretty overwhelming. The IAEA has looked at it a thousand different ways to make sure the information is credible and accurate,” Albright said. Yet for Iran, “it’s a very big thing to admit to.”

 

Nevertheless, Iran’s official IRNA news service dismissed what it called “fake allegations” in the UN report. Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, accused the IAEA’s director, Yukiya Amano, of following US orders by releasing the report, while arguing unconvincingly that the detailed simulations and tests described in the documents upon which the report’s conclusions were based were unrelated to any weapons program.

 

The Obama administration, which has long promised to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, had a mild reaction to the IAEA report, saying that Iran’s leaders have some explaining to do. “Today’s report is yet another indication of Iran’s failure to live up to its international obligations,” a senior administration official told reporters.

 

RUSSIANS STILL IN DENIAL

 

The report met a longstanding Iranian challenge to IAEA weapons inspectors to publish any evidence they had that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Now that it has done that, not only have the Iranians been exposed as liars in the court of world opinion, but so have Russia and China, who, for years, defended Iran against European and American accusations which the IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program now convincingly confirms.

 

“China and Russia may be more reluctant now to vouch for Iran’s peaceful intentions,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But they will continue to argue that dialogue, not coercion, is the only way to resolve this issue.”

 

President Obama who was in Hawaii to attend an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit over the weekend, met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the report. After their meeting, Obama issued a noncommital statement saying that the US and Russia would continue to seek a “common response” to Iran’s nuclear program.

 

Earlier, the Russian foreign ministry condemned the report as a “biased” document containing no new information, and that it was designed to “juggle” world opinion. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov added that “any additional sanctions against Iran would be perceived by the international community as an instrument for regime change in Tehran.”

 

IRANIANS RESPOND WITH MORE THREATS

 

While Iranian officials deny the accusations, they have stepped up their threats of retaliation against any military attack on their nuclear facilities, which would be directed against “the entire Europe and the US.”

 

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued yet another threat, while denying the report’s accusations. He claimed that Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to “cut off the hands of the United States.”

 

While the Israeli government doesn’t seem to be intimidated by these threats, the Europeans are. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday after consulting with his fellow European Union diplomats that Europe has already ruled out the possibility of punishing Iran for its transgressions with a strike on its nuclear facilities, fearing that the retaliation would set off an “uncontrollable spiral.” He added that the only European reaction to the IAEA report would be a freeze on any more European Investment Bank loans to Iran, but that would have to await the next meeting of the European ministers on December 1.

 

Other European foreign ministers were more critical of Iran’s actions. Germany’s Guido Weterwelle said that harsh new sanctions on Iran were unavoidable if it did not become more cooperative with the IAEA, but he too ruled out the use of military force. Only British Foreign Secretary William Hague was willing to say that “all options are on the table,” while at the same time expressing a preference for “peaceful, legitimate pressure” on Iran.

 

GOP CANDIDATES RESPOND

 

The report was brought up in one of the questions at a nationally televised GOP presidential campaign debate on foreign policy held in South Carolina last week. In response, both former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that if they were president, they would be willing to use military force against Iran, if more severe economic sanctions and US support for Iran’s opposition did not persuade Iran’s leader to abandon the weapons program.

 

“If all else fails, if after all of the work we’ve done, there’s nothing else we could do besides take military action. Then of course you take military action,” Romney said.

 

Gingrich was less explicit, but agreed that: “If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists, you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”

 

Romney and Gingrich called for the use of covert action to try to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 

Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry were much more reluctant to attack the Iranian nuclear program. Cain said he would offer US help to the Iranian opposition, but “would not entertain military opposition.”

 

Perry said he would extend current US economic sanctions on Iran to its central bank, a move that the Obama administration has been unwilling to make, apparently for fear of an Iranian retaliation that could disrupt the flow of oil from the region.

 

ISRAELI OFFICIALS QUIETLY SATISFIED

 

Israeli officials expressed quiet satisfaction that the UN has now confirmed its longstanding accusation that Iran is building nuclear weapons. However, Israel is taking a low profile, hoping that other countries will take the lead in the diplomatic effort to extend the sanctions on Iran.

 

Israel is continuing efforts to convince the US and other Western nations that if nothing happens to head off the Iranian nuclear program, Israel would have no choice but to take military action. They point to the conclusion of the IAEA report confirming that the Iranians are actively working on several designs of a nuclear warhead for their missiles, and currently have enough partially enriched uranium to make up to four nuclear weapons, with additional processing. Thus, while Iran is rapidly approaching the nuclear threshold, the West is still doing nothing to stop it.

 

SIGNS THAT WAR MAY BE COMING

 

A number of recent media reports about Israel’s attack plans, along with the testing of a new Israeli ballistic missile, and a highly publicized civil defense drill simulating a missile attack on the Tel Aviv area, have contributed to the impression that Israel’s military intentions should be taken seriously.

 

Last week before the report was published, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, tried to play down growing speculation that Israel was already committed to launching an imminent pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He stressed that Israel has “not yet” decided to take military action against Iran, and dismissed reports of a planned first-strike as “fear-mongering.”

 

At the same time, Barak suggested that such a first strike would not have devastating consequences for Israel, and that Israel would be prepared to go ahead with such a strike, if it were necessary, without the help of another country, such as the US.

 

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu waited several days before making relatively low key public remarks on the report at a cabinet meeting. He said, “the international community must stop Iran’s race to arm itself with nuclear weapons before it is too late, a race that endangers the peace of the entire world.” An official in Netanyahu’s office said that Iran is even closer to achieving nuclear weapons capability than the report indicates, because it only includes those things which the IAEA can prove. However, Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet ministers that, “in reality, there are many other things that we see.”

 

Israeli officials said that even if Russia and China continue to block another UN Security Council resolution, as is expected, other nations could impose their own bilateral sanctions to increase the cost of the nuclear program to Iran.

 

They say that even countries which disagree with Israel’s opposition to unilateral Palestinian statehood agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a menace to the whole region and could set off a dangerous arms race.

 

DOUBTS AS TO WHETHER AN ISRAELI ATTACK CAN SUCCEED

 

There is no doubt that the Israelis are trying to intimidate the Iranians with the threat of a pre-emptive strike, and Iran is reacting with its own belligerent statements. However, there are some analysts who express serious doubts as to whether Israel has the military capability to successfully carry out such an attack. Even if it can, just how long that attack would delay Iran in achieving a practical nuclear weapons capability is unclear.

 

Former Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan is one of these skeptics, noting that Iran has been moving more of its nuclear infrastructure deep into underground facilities, making it far more difficult for Israel to attack them successfully.

 

“The Israeli Air Force is capable of launching an attack on Iran and causing damage,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “But it is far from capable of disabling the Iran nuclear program. That would take at least a month of sustained bombing. That’s not something Israel can carry out alone.”

 

Uzi Eilam, a retired Israeli general who is one of Shapir’s colleagues at the Tel Aviv University’s institute, told Bloomberg News that he disagrees with those now issuing threats against Iran. “It’s a serious issue and a lot of people are saying very irresponsible things about what we should do.”

 

At a conference sponsored by the institute on Monday, other experts also expressed doubts that either sanctions or an attack could stop the Iranian nuclear program at this point. As the institute’s deputy director, Ephraim Kam told the conference, “Iran wants a bomb, or at least the capacity to make a bomb, and is willing to pay the price.” W. Pal Sidhu, of the NYU Center on International Cooperation told the conference, “I think we have reached a limit in terms of sanctions,” adding that the time for them has passed, while any attempt by the Israeli military to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities may well be beyond its capabilities.

 

MORE THAN 1,000 SORTIES WOULD BE REQUIRED

 

Retired US Air Force general Charles “Chuck” Wald, has calculated that it would take more than 1,000 air sorties to be certain of wiping out the Iranian nuclear operation.

 

Richard Russell, a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington warns that Israel would find it far more difficult to knock out Iran’s nuclear facilities than its 2007 air raid which destroyed a North Korean nuclear facility hidden in the Syrian desert, or the 1981 air raid which knocked out Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak in Iraq.

 

“The Israelis actually have limited means of attacking Iran’s nuclear program,” Russel said. “This is a very, very difficult problem for the Israelis, and it’s getting more and more acute.” He noted that even if Israel uses the most powerful conventional “bunker buster” bombs in its arsenals, they won’t do any good if Iran has a hidden facility that Israel has not yet found.

 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly cautioned Israel against launching its own military strike during his visit to Israel last month. “The most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him at the time.

 

He added that the U.S. and Israel will “work together to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they (Iran) do not represent a threat to this region, but I think it ought to be done on the basis of countries working together in this region.”

 

ISRAEL’S COVERT WAR AGAINST IRAN CONTINUING

 

However, it is widely assumed that the US supports Israel’s undeclared covert war against the Iranian nuclear program, which has had some notable successes in recent years. Israel, probably with US help, was behind the development and deployment of the Stuxnet computer virus which attacked the computerized controls of Iran’s uranium enriching centrifuges. The virus caused them to speed up so much that they self-destructed, while deceiving the Iranian operators in the control room into believing that the equipment was run normally.

 

The Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, is also believed to have been responsible for the assassination of three Iranian nuclear scientists over the past two years. These and other incidents, including a mysterious 2007 explosion at a missile base in southern of Teheran, and another at a missile production facility in October of last year, have been cited in the Israeli media as evidence that the Mossad campaign is still ongoing.

 

There is widespread speculation in the Israeli media that the Mossad was behind the latest Iranian military catastrophe, another mysterious explosion over the weekend, this time at an Islamic Revolutionary Guards base 25 miles from Teheran, which killed one of Iran’s top military missile experts, Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam who supervised Iran’s missile development program which produced the Shahab-3. The same blast killed 16 other members of the Revolutionary Guard, which is under the direct control of Iran’s Islamic rulers.

 

Iranian officials went out of their way to emphasize that the blast was not an attack by one of the insurgent groups operating inside Iran, or Israeli agents. They characterized the incident as an accident which took place while Iranian soldiers were transporting munitions to a depot at the base. But they did not explain why such a high ranking officer would be close enough to such an inherently dangerous but routine operation to be killed accidentally in the blast. An Iranian dissident group known as the National Resistance Council claims that the base is not a munitions depot, but rather an advanced missile development center.

 

Furthermore, a Time Magazine report cites reports that the explosion was so big that it could be heard 25 miles away in Teheran. A local resident who has military experience and who lives close to the base said that the blast did not sound like a munitions depot blowing up. In such cases, one usually hears a series of blasts as different stockpiles of munitions are detonated by the heat from earlier explosions. In this case, however, the local resident said, “all I heard was one big boom. I was sure that anyone in its immediate vicinity must have been killed. Something definitely happened, but I would not trust the [Revolutionary] Guards to be truthful as to what it really was.”

 

SOME SAY THAT ITS ALREADY TOO LATE

 

Ephraim Asculai, an Israeli nuclear expert who also worked for the IAEA in Vienna, says that he believes that all that stands between Iran and a nuclear weapons capability is a political decision by Iran’s leaders to finish enriching the uranium already in their stockpile. He believes that technologically, “the Iranians have already passed any deadline you can think of.” He has also said that if they wanted to, the Iranians could build a nuclear weapon within a year with the material they now have on hand, and nobody would know they had it.

 

In his opinion, only the most extreme new economic and travel sanctions, including an embargo on the sale of oil distillates, a ban on the sale of all but humanitarian goods and supplies to Iran, and a cutoff of all financial dealings with Iran’s central bank could possibly convince the Iranians to stop their nuclear development now.

 

Giora Eiland, who formerly served as a national security adviser to Israel prime ministers, said that he believes that Israel has, at most, a year or two before Iran becomes a nuclear power. He also said that, “if you don’t make a decision to act, you are in fact making a decision” to let Iran achieve nuclear capability. He added pessimistically, “I believe the international community will fail to reach a solution on the Iranian case, and this dilemma will become real.”

 

US STILL TALKING ABOUT MORE SANCTIONS

 

Israeli media reports say that two senior Obama administration officials, David Cohen, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, are in the region to meet with senior Israeli government and military leaders to discuss US plans to get European and other allies to blacklist Iran’s central bank because of the revelations in the IAEA report.

 

Cohen has already consulted with European officials on the enhanced sanctions, and will also try to convince Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to cut off more than $20 billion a year which it currently facilitates for the Iranians.

 

Noting the continued opposition from Russia and China, the Obama administration is not expecting any further action by the UN Security Council, so it is trying to put together another “coalition of the willing,” to borrow a phrase from the Bush years, that it hopes will also include Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea in boycotting Iran’s central bank.

 

ROSS FOLLOWS MITCHELL LEAVING IN DEFEAT

 

The latest effort by the Obama administration to find a response to the growing Iranian nuclear threat comes in the context of the departure of Dennis Ross, the second top ranking White House Middle East policy expert to step down over the past six months.

 

Ross was a senior advisor to the Obama administration in its formulating policies to deal effectively with the Iranians and its efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Both efforts have failed miserably, prompting Ross to follow Obama’s Middle East special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, in returning to private life after more than two years marked by frustrations and setbacks. Mitchell left in May.

 

In accepting his resignation, the White House hailed Ross’ “extraordinary record of public service.” White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Ross, “played a critical role in our efforts to apply unprecedented pressure on the Iranian government, support democratic transitions in the region and deepen our security relationship with Israel while pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

 

Ross, 62, has served as an adviser on Middle East affairs during four White House administrations going back to for former President Bill Clinton. Weeks after Obama’s inauguration he was appointed special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then, in June 2009, moved to the White House to become a special assistant to the president on the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

 

Ross was often accused by the Palestinians of being too pro-Israel, even though his negotiating proposals sometimes also drew angry denunciations from the Israelis. In recent months he repeatedly warned both sides that time was running out to reach a negotiated peace settlement based upon a two-state solution.

 

EFFORTS DOOMED BY OBAMA’S EARLY MISTAKES

 

One of Ross’ former State Department Middle East policymaking colleagues, Aaron David Miller, is now very skeptical about the administration succeeding either in stopping the Iranians or reviving the peace process, largely because of key early policy mistakes by Obama and “the reality of how hard this job is, and the size of the mountain that has to be climbed.”

 

Those early mistakes include Obama’s amateurish and naive early efforts to reach out to Iran’s Islamic leaders, conveying a message of US weakness and lack of resolve. Obama also repeatedly sabotaged his own efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by publicly insisting on Israeli concessions. This convinced PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Arab allies to hold firm to their demands rather than agreeing return to negotiations with the Israeli government.

 

Ross, in a brief statement released by the White House, said he was leaving his post with “mixed feelings. “I am grateful to President Obama for having given me the opportunity once again to work on a wide array of Middle Eastern issues and to support his efforts to promote peace in the region,” he said.

 

The Washington Post and Bloomberg News contributed to this story