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July 31, 2015 / 15 Av, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘nuclear proliferation’

Despite “Freeze”, Iran Nuke Stockpile Mysteriously Growing

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

How does one translate the phrase “negotiating in good faith” into Persian?

Over the past 18 months, Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium – a nuclear fuel – has grown by some 20 percent, eight percent in the past two months alone, as documented last Friday in a report by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned of just such a scenario in his landmark address to the U.S. Congress in March (2015). So this probably comes as no surprise to most Israelis. However, it is making headlines across the United States, since it is seen by some as a direct betrayal by the White House.

The Obama administration had assured the American people that Iran had “frozen” its nuclear development activities while negotiating with U.S.-led world powers over a deal to limit the nuclear program and prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons under President Obama’s watch. Now the talks are in their final month, with the June 30 deadline looming ahead.

Under the terms being negotiated, Iran is to possess only 660 pounds (300 kg) of nuclear fuel, less than that needed to create a nuclear weapon, once the deal is signed. The rest of its nuclear fuel stockpile is to be removed — either shipped out, transformed or otherwise destroyed.

But Tehran made it clear as far back as March that Iran has no intention of shipping the remaining 96% of its nuclear fuel out of the country. Nor has it proposed any other solution to the dilemma. This raises a rather curious question about the disposal of Iran’s mysteriously growing stockpile.

American officials don’t actually know how Iran will comply. As one official told The New York Times, “It’s their problem, not ours. But it’s a problem.”

It sure is.

One can also question how anyone in the Obama administration could claim that Iran froze its nuclear activities while Tehran has clearly been growing that stockpile – significantly.

The U.S., meanwhile, seems baffled at how an Iranian stockpile that should at least have remained static, could possibly have grown.

Here’s an even bigger problem: Under the terms of the interim agreement signed in March between Iran and the U.S.-led world powers (P5+1), Iran had allegedly been building a “conversion plant” at the Isfahan nuclear complex. There, enriched uranium could be transformed into oxide powder and then into reactor fuel rods, rather than left to become weapons-grade fuel. But they didn’t.

Iran didn’t keep its word. “Iran has failed” to make the conversion, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a research group in Washington which reported on the issue in February.

Tehran didn’t keep its end of the bargain – and the deal isn’t even signed yet.

That’s 18 months of nuclear undercover evasion (“cheating”) that the U.S. administration claims to know nothing about. It’s not clear which is more frightening: an American administration so clueless that it truly did NOT know anything about what was happening under the ground in Iranian nuclear plants, or did know and didn’t say, ‘didn’t ask and didn’t tell.’

It is also important to note that Iran will only have to maintain that minimized nuclear fuel stockpile for 15 years. The deal does not address what happens after that.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation has announced they are building a second nuclear reactor in Iran, in addition to the one they built in 2013.

The oil-rich Islamic Republic plans to build 20 such nuclear reactors, allegedly to reduce its dependency on oil.

If only Iran were building settlements instead of enriched uranium – then the Obama administration would put its foot down.

Netanyahu Addresses Obama Via YouTube, Since the Telephone is Broken

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

The entire world, except President Obama, seems to have heard Prime Minister Netanyahu’s very specific criticisms and recommended amendments and alternatives to Obama’s current nuclear proliferation deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Perhaps hoping the President will pay attention if he hears the message through a more hip venue, Netanyahu has released his criticisms and recommendations via a YouTube video.

Next time the President says he’s still waiting to hear Netanyahu’s alternative plan, just send him this link.

Netanyahu points out that Iran is continuing its support of global terrorism, while refusing to agree to even the most basic of terms, including effective inspections and dismantling its nuclear capabilities with which it can still produce nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu reiterated “again” the two main components of his alternative to Obama’s “bad deal”.

1) “A better deal would significantly roll back these [nuclear development] capabilities”, and that includes shutting down the illicit underground nuclear facilities that Iran hid from the international community for years – something, quite surprising, Obama’s bad deal doesn’t do.

2) “Instead of lifting the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear facilities and program at a fixed date, a better deal would link the lifting of the restrictions to an end of Iran’s aggression in the region, its worldwide terrorism and its threats to annihilate Israel.” – In simple terms, Iran must not have the capability right now to make nuclear weapons, and the only time it should be allowed to have that capability, and apparently even have it completely unrestricted, is when it decides to join the community of nations as a member in good standing, and not as the neighborhood thug.

Netanyahu points out that Iran needs this deal more than anyone, and as such, this is the opportunity to reassert the world’s original demands, which Obama has backed down from.

He finishes off saying the global community should not allow Iran to have an easy path to nuclear weapons which will threaten the entire world.

A very clear message.

Obama Mocks Netanyahu’s ‘Red Line’ Cartoon with Inaccurate Sketch

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The White House Wednesday tweeted a diagram promoting the nuclear deal with Iran that directly ridiculed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “red line” cartoon in the United Nations three years ago — but the White House version also was full of inaccuracies.

Netanyahu’s cartoon, which was headlined around the world, show a red near the top of a bomb to get across his point that “there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs and that is by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Wise guys at the White House dreamed up a similar diagram with an opposite message and with the help of a blue line at the bottom of the bomb to illustrate that Iran has a zero chance of developing a nuclear bomb under the administration’s proposed deal.

“Under the framework for an Iran nuclear deal, Iran uranium enrichment pathway to a weapon will be shut down,” the chart reads.

There is one problem with the diagram. It is not true.

President Obama has actually bragged that Iran will be limited to “only” 6,000 centrifuges, all of which can produce uranium, which would be low-grade. The sketch accurately states that under the deal, there will be “no production or stockpile of highly enrich uranium.” Experts have said that 6000 centrifuges is enough to produce a bomb.

But a picture tells a thousand words, in and this case, they all are wrong because that little blue line clearly shows Iran would have “0%” enriched uranium, which is a lie.

The Obama administration’s diagram also claims that Iran would be 90 percent on the way to a bomb if there is no deal, but that statement only makes Netanyahu’s argument stronger as Iran is so close to achieving that, it could easily violate the deal and achieve its goal while the world argues about whether to impose stiff sanctions after the fact.

President Obama also admitted this week, that in just over a decade — with the deal, Iran would be able to get the bomb before anyone would even notice. The State Department tried to walk that one back.

Jacques Hymans, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and an expert on nuclear proliferation, told Vox.com last year:

As long as they have those centrifuges sitting there, the deal is really walking on thin ice.

Below is the White House’s latest gimmick to sell the nuclear deal with Iran.

The White House's inaccurate sketch.

The White House’s inaccurate sketch.

 

 

Obama Finally Forced to Admit Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Time ‘Zero’ in 13 Years

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

It took a lot of pressure and many more speeches and harangues by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu than anyone probably wanted to hear, but at the end of the day, it paid off:

U.S. President Barack Obama was finally forced on Tuesday to admit the truth: In 13 years – if not fewer – Iran’s breakout time to an atomic bomb will be zero.

That means the world will have practically no warning whatsoever as to when Iran actually reaches its nuclear weapons capability – if it has not already done so by then, without telling anyone.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Obama told NPR News that for the first decade following the new deal reached last week with world powers led by the United States in Lausanne, Switzerland, Tehran will be capped at 300 kilograms of enriched uranium. The president insisted this was not enough to convert to a cache of weapons-grade fuel.

But then the president said this:

What is a more relevant fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.

By then, restrictions on Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles will have been eased for the two years prior – in Years 11 and 12 – which means there will already have been two years in which to gather enriched nuclear fuel.

The admission confirms just one of a long list of concerns that Israel’s prime minister had underlined to the U.S. Congress – and to the rest of the world – in his repeated explanations of why “an even greater danger” exists that Iran could “get to the bomb by keeping [this] deal.”

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday issued a government statement outlining “the irresponsible concessions given to Iran” in the agreement. The document also showed “how dangerous the framework is for Israel, the region and the world.”

Among the changes demanded by Israel to the current agreement between Iran and world powers prior to the June 30 final deadline (which the United States has ignored):

  • Bar further Iranian research and development on advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges;
  • Significantly reduce the number of centrifuges available to Iran for it to reactivate in violation of the deal;
  • Close down the Fordow underground enrichment facility;
  • Require Iranian compliance in detailing previous nuclear activities with potential military dimensions;
  • Ship Iran’s stockpile of lower-enriched uranium out of the country;
  • Ensure “anywhere-anytime” spot inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The document (click here for the PDF file) also made clear – as has Netanyahu, repeatedly in statements to the media – that the current agreement “ignores the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program to Israel.” The prime minister emphasized that a “better deal” can and must be reached with Iran, “an enemy of the United States whose regime, even during the negotiations, continued to conduct aggression in the region and to call for the destruction of Israel.”

The document pointedly calls attention to the fact that under the current agreement:

  • Not a single nuclear facility will be shut down;
  • Iran is allowed to continued advanced uranium centrifuge enrichment research and development;
  • Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile program development is altogether ignored;
  • Sanctions that could be used to regulate Iran’s compliance are instead removed.

Included in the document are 10 questions aimed at those who negotiated this deal and support its passage into law:

1. Why are sanctions that took years to put in place being removed immediately (as the Iranians claim)? This removes the international community’s primary leverage at the outset of the agreement, and make Iranian compliance less likely.

Pressure on Iran Picking Up to Sign a Nuclear Deal

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

US Senate to Vote on Sanctions If No Iran Deal, EU Sanctions Already Reinstated

The United States Senate has threatened to impose sanctions on Iran if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are not successful in shepherding a nuclear technology deal through talks between world powers and Iran.

The European Union has already reinstated sanctions against 40 Iranian companies, including dozens of shipping firms, in order to increase pressure on Iran to sign on the dotted line.

The EU General Court lifted the sanctions on firms that were linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines carrier (IRISL) in January, saying the EU had not proved the IRISL was actively supporting nuclear proliferation.

IRISL attorney Maryam Taher told the Reuters news agency the move was “purely politically motivated and not based on any proper evidence. The whole purpose of the EU sanctions is to leverage pressure on the Iranian government to come to an agreement in relation to nuclear proliferation.”

On Monday, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that it could not state definitively that Iran’s nuclear program had no “military dimensions.” Issues meant to resolve suspicions of weaponization work remain, according to IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano said in his report, despite what he called “good cooperation” from Tehran regarding the November 2013 comprehensive safeguards agreement.

However, he said, “We continue to verify the non-divergence of nuclear material declared by Iran, but we are still not in a position to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful purpose.”

If international negotiators come up empty-handed this time around (they have already missed one deadline), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday at a weekly news briefing “Another heavy dose of sanctions would be an appropriate remedy.”

If an agreement is signed, the lawmakers would pass a bill requiring the president to submit the deal to Congress for its approval. The bill also contains a provision that would temporarily remove Obama’s ability to waive sanctions.

Obama says he will veto both bills.

Negotiators took a break on Friday and reconvene this week as the March 31 deadline inches closer. World leaders will try again to close a deal with a nation whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Saturday for “Death to America,” while its President Hassan Rouhani expressed optimism that an agreement could still be reached.

Iran Talks Stuck Over What Stops First, Nukes Or Sanctions

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Published on Jewish Business News

by Ilan Shavit

The timing for lifting international sanctions on Iran is now a major hurdle before an agreement can be reached on limiting its nuclear program by the deadline, March 31 deadline, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing American, European, and Iranian officials.

The Iranians now insist that UN backed sanctions on their energy, finance, and transportation sectors are terminated as the first phase of the deal. The other side wants a gradual removal of the sanctions over several years, depending on Iran’s compliance, especially in its cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

A senior European diplomat told the WSJ the Iranians “say it’s a deal breaker. They don’t want it at all,” adding that “there’s no way that we would give up on that…. No way.”

Stalemate.

The same official said the U.S. and the Europeans expect the process of lifting the restrictions on Iran to last at least one year, more likely two.

However, the process of lifting the sanctions could start as early as a few weeks following the signing of the deal, the WSJ notes. This would include Iran starting to reclaim its frozen assets in Western banks, to the tune of $100 billion.

According to Bloomberg, the IAEA is willing to accelerate the assessment of the Iranian program, but expects Iran to significantly improve its cooperation with monitors.

“We are prepared to assist them in the resolution of all outstanding issues,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said on March 2. “Iran needs the confidence of the international community.”

The IAEA says Iran is yet to turn over key documents and permit them access to key sites as well as face time with scientists who have worked on the nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, bolstered by his decisive victory in Tuesday’s national elections, on Thursday demanded the broadening of the sanctions on Iran, to force its leadership to give up not just its nuclear program, but also end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Netanyahu told NBC News: “The most important thing is that the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would depend on Iran’s change of behavior, that it would stop supporting terrorism, stop its aggression against just about every country in the region, and stop calling [for] and threatening the annihilation of Israel.”

An Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program in What was Formerly ‘Syria’

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

{Originally posted to author’s website, Liberty Unyielding}

Note: This analysis takes on renewed significance in light of the Iranians’ announcement this week that they intend to build two new nuclear reactors, and the Obama administration’s insistence that such a clear expansion of the Iranian nuclear program does not constitute a violation of the Joint Plan of Action to “freeze” the program while its ultimate status is being negotiated.  The facts on the ground are busy changing under our feet, with almost no notice by the Western media.

It was evident a year and a half ago that there would be no restoration of Syria, as we know it, under the Assad regime.

That reality is something the mind of a global public hasn’t really caught up to yet.  But it is reality – Syria, as delineated after World War I, has fallen apart – and it should color our perception of a report from 9 January that remnants of Assad’s nuclear program are still alive and well.

We should not overestimate what’s going on with those remnants, which don’t have anyone close to a nuclear breakout.  The remnants are real – Western intelligence agencies think so – but the evidence of where they have been relocated is indirect, and mostly non-specific.  Assuming they are there, the best estimate would be that they are in approximately the same state they were four years ago: elements of a program not much degraded, perhaps, but not much advanced, if at all, from its earlier condition.

What matters more, however, is that if the analysis of experts is correct, the physical “stuff” in question was moved from one major battle site in Syria to another one, in 2012 and 2013, and ended up in a region on the border with Lebanon now controlled by Hezbollah and Iran.

In other words, the stuff was present in at least one and possibly two areas being fought over by Assad’s forces and rebel forces.   Natural-uranium stock and uranium fuel rods, for example, could have fallen into the hands of foreign jihadis, and/or the Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Nusra Front.

Now those materials, and probably others (including processing equipment), are thought to be stored in an area seized by Hezbollah in 2013, under the direction of the Iranian Qods Force.

This should alarm us.  While Assad controlled Syria, his nuclear aspirations were a big but boundable problem.  Now that he no longer controls Syria, what has happened to the elements of his nuclear program is likely to have non-boundable implications.  At the very least, it has the potential to empower Iran, Hezbollah, or both, with materials held in locations whose political control and accountability will be uncertain – from an official international standpoint – for the foreseeable future.

It’s a nightmare:  the very real potential for the most dangerous kind of nuclear proliferation.

The nuclear problem

Readers will remember that in September 2007, Israel attacked a nuclear reactor being constructed, with the help of North Korea, at al-Kibar in northeastern Syria.  No follow-on construction resumed at the reactor shell itself, although it was quickly covered with tarps and temporary structures after the strike, to frustrate foreign intelligence collection.

The type of reactor being put up was assessed to be a gas-graphite reactor like the one in Yongbyon, North Korea, which would produce enough plutonium as a byproduct for one to two plutonium bombs per year.

The gas-graphite reactor is different from Iran’s at Bushehr (a “light-water” reactor cooled by pressurized water), which would not be a significant source of plutonium.  Iran’s main path to nuclear weapons has been the separate one of uranium enrichment, with a uranium bomb as the end-product.  The enrichment path involves direct enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade purity, using centrifuge cascades as the principal method (although Iran is also thought to be working with laser enrichment).  No reactor is involved in the production of material for the weapons per se.

That said, Iran does have a heavy-water plutonium-producing reactor under construction at Arak, and is thus pursuing both paths to weaponization.

All of this matters, because it affects two things: the footprint of Assad’s nuclear program – what physical clues we have to look for – and the utility of his program to revolutionary Iran’s aspirations.

In Syria, we are not looking for centrifuge facilities like the vast enrichment complex at Natanz in Iran, or the smaller facility at Fordo, near Qom.  We will be looking instead for plants where yellowcake is converted to a usable form (in this case, uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4) and is metalized into fuel rods for the reactor.  We will also be looking for a facility at which plutonium can be separated out – harvested, essentially – from the spent fuel rods after they are removed from the reactor.  In North Korea, this process occurs at the “Radiochemical Laboratory” at Yongbyon, a six-story industrial building.

Reporting from February 2011 – the very outset of the Arab Spring – identified a probable uranium conversion plant at a Syrian military base, Marj as-Sultan, just east of Damascus.  The site had come under IAEA suspicion as early as 2008.  Specific types of major equipment present there were named in a 2011 report from Suddeutsche Zeitung, cited extensively in analysis by experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

Syria-nuke-map-1

In January 2013, an article at Financial Times (subscription required; see link in ISIS’s link in this report) indicated that “unusual activity” had been taking place at the suspect area of Marj as-Sultan, where the equipment, along with 50 tonnes of uranium and possibly more than 8,000 fuel rods, were thought, based on earlier intelligence, to be stored.

The unusual activity at the suspect site was probably a consequence of the fighting in the area between regime and rebel forces, which occurred at the same time: in the autumn of 2012.  More on that in the next segment.  The point here is that there is good reason to believe that some of the remnants of Assad’s nuclear program – at a minimum uranium stock, fuel rods, and conversion equipment – were still at the Marj as-Sultan site sometime in 2012.

This brings us to the report by Der Spiegel last week, which indicated that a site in Qusayr, Syria, on the border with Lebanon between Damascus and Homs, has been identified as a nuclear-related site.  Spiegel cites government intelligence sources who have studied activity at the site since 2009, when work on it began.  The site appears to be an underground facility for which the excavation was carefully disguised:

According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military…

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

Syria-nuke-Qusayr

Beyond the observed developments at the site, Spiegel quotes a source as offering communications intelligence confirmation:

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

There is, moreover, an intriguing possibility suggested by the disappearance of the North Korean scientist, Chou Ji Bu, who has been most closely associated with the Syrian nuclear program.  The possibility is that Chou has been in Syria since sometime in 2007Spiegel again:

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus.

In sum: prior to the Arab Spring, Syria had accumulated important elements of a program to build a working reactor like the one at Yongbyon and produce material for plutonium bombs.  Although Israel destroyed the reactor itself while it was under construction, several elements of the program remained intact in Syrian hands.  It is not clear what progress, if any, has been made with them in the nearly four years since the Arab Spring began, but there is credible evidence not only that the nuclear program continues, but that the previously-accumulated elements of it are still in Syria.

The question, however, is who is really in charge of them at this point.

The political control problem

That a Hezbollah operative is making reports on the “atomic factory” to the godfather of Assad’s nuclear program – Ibrahim Othman – is hardly meaningless.  It means at least that Iran still works through Assad in Syria, for important purposes.  There is still a convention of gestures between the two governments.  Othman himself, as we should expect, retains a unique significance.

But given everything else about this situation, including the location of a suspect site at Qusayr, and the history of the site at Marj as-Sultan in the civil war, we would be wrong to think of the nuclear program in Syria as still being Assad’s nuclear program, to do with as he wants.  Like the territory of Syria itself, the true ownership of the nuclear program is now a question more of who has local control – and who will set boundaries for Assad, since he is unable to reconsolidate “Syria” in his own power.

First, we must stipulate that the activity at the Qusayr site, which began in 2009, was directed originally by the Assad regime.  Revolutionary Iran has always had an interest in Assad’s nuclear program, and some degree of influence over it, but in 2009, Assad was still making his own decisions.

Fast-forward, however, to the critical period in 2012 and 2013 when the nuclear program was imperiled by local fighting in the civil war.  The regime’s air base at Marj as-Sultan was endangered by fighting in the larger Eastern Ghouta area in 2012, and rebel forces made significant headway there throughout the year.  In late November 2012, they overran the air base as part of their campaign in Eastern Ghouta.  Later reporting revealed that Assad’s forces had evacuated the operable military equipment from the base before it was overrun; that information, and the imagery observation of unusual activity at the suspect nuclear site, support the assessment that the nuclear-program material was also removed.

The Telegraph’s characterization (link above) was the common one at the time: the rebels, making gains in Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, were “tightening the noose” on Assad.  The period from late 2012 to mid-2013 was actually a critical inflection point in the fortunes of the Syrian civil war.  Assad was on the ropes, losing strategic ground in the north as well as around Damascus.

Syria-nuke-map-2

A big part of what changed the momentum in his favor was a decision in the early spring of 2013 to shift regime forces from the Qusayr area, where they were in a standoff with the Al-Nusra Front, and bring them to Eastern Ghouta and Daraya, east and south of Damascus.  This shift enabled the turning tide that saw regime gains later in 2013, a campaign that included the battle in Eastern Ghouta in which Assad is alleged to have used chemical weapons.

Syria-nuke-map-3Syria-nuke-map-4

Qusayr would not be left to fall, of course.  Situated at the north end of the Beqaa Valley, Qusayr commands the approach from Lebanon to Homs, and must be held in order to keep the entire province secure, and prevent Homs from being cut off from Damascus.

But this feature of the campaign is where the sand shifted under Assad’s feet, so to speak.  He couldn’t regain momentum in Damascus and also establish control of Qusayr.

Iran and Hezbollah, executing an Iranian plan, stepped in to do the fighting and defeat the rebels at Qusayr.

The Hezbollah campaign at Qusayr in the spring of 2013 marked a significant break in Hezbollah’s level of political and military involvement in the Syrian civil war, which had hitherto been minimal – a fact quickly noted by analysts.  There was no question who had seized control of Qusayr when the battle was won: Hezbollah was in charge, not the forces of the Assad regime.  In fact, when the defeated rebels sought safe passage out of the city, their flight was negotiated by Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a long-time associate of Hezbollah in the ever-shifting politics of Beirut.

Some of the impact on Lebanon of the disposition of Qusayr, and Hezbollah’s control of the city, is hinted at by this brief report from April 2014, which notes the arrest by the Lebanese army of a “military council leader” from Qusayr.  The report suggests he was engaged in arms trafficking; he would have been a Hezbollah operative.  Hezbollah has been an encroaching force in Lebanon for decades, controlling parts of the country and resisted in others.  With Assad’s status on the other side of the border increasingly subject to an Iranian veto, Hezbollah is on the cusp of holding a worrisome new strategic advantage.

A new picture emerges

It is no accident that the site of a nuclear facility in Syria has ended up under the control of Hezbollah and Iran.  It’s a question for another time what the Assad regime’s original purpose was in locating it in Qusayr, but we do know that in 2013, the commander of the Iranian paramilitary Qods force, Qassem Soleimani, is reported to have fully orchestrated the Hezbollah takeover in Qusayr:

According to Will Fulton, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Hezbollah fighters encircled Qusayr, cutting off the roads, then moved in. Dozens of them were killed, as were at least eight Iranian officers. On June 5th, the town fell. “The whole operation was orchestrated by Suleimani,” [said former CIA officer John] Maguire, who is still active in the region. “It was a great victory for him.”

There has been extensive recognition of Iran’s involvement in Syria; see here, here, and here, for example.  Much of that discussion has already understood that the battle of Qusayr was both a turning point in the civil war and a key feature of the Iranian strategy.  But the emerging information about the nuclear site at Qusayr sheds a new light on the strategic import of the Iranian involvement, and on the critical inflection point in Assad’s fortunes in late 2012 and early 2013.

Qusayr’s geographic features are an important reason for Hezbollah to have wanted to make an investment there.  But the existence of a nuclear site would have intensified Iran’s interest, explaining the focus Tehran put on orchestrating a victory there – a victory by Hezbollah, and not by Assad’s forces.  The before-and-after implied in that sentence speaks volumes.

Put that development in the context of growing recognition that there is no “Syria” anymore – see, for example, the treatments here and here – and a new picture begins to emerge of what Iran is really doing in what used to be Syria.

Take that picture, moreover, and add to it data points from the last few days.  After the Spiegel piece came out, members of the Free Syrian Army in the Qusayr area reported on 12 January that Iranian officers were there supervising the suspect facility, and that Hezbollah was mounting an “unprecedented” security presence for it.

[FSA official] Al-Bitar said the Friday report [in] Der Spiegel has been discussed at length in command meetings of rebel factions in the Kalamoon area.

He went on to say that “what can be confirmed is that what’s going on there is happening under direct Iranian supervision and the Syrian regime is only a cover-up for this.”

On 13 January, Adam Kredo reported at Washington Free Beacon that Iran acknowledges building missile manufacturing plants in Syria.

IRGC Aerospace Commander Haji Zadeh touted Iran’s capabilities and bragged that Iran has gone from importing most of its military hardware to producing it domestically, as well as for regional partners such as Assad.

“A country such as Syria which used to sell us arms, was later on to buy our missiles,” Zadeh was quoted as saying earlier this week by the Young Journalists Club. “Right now the missile manufacturing firms in Syria are built by Iran.”

Iran’s involvement in weapons manufacturing in Syria was already well known.  But the statement by Zadeh is a reminder of the scope of what Iran does in Syria – and the potential created by that array of activities for hemispheric power projection, through terror and intimidation.

The beauty of the territory of “Syria” for Iran is not only that it is in political turmoil.  It’s also that Syria is a wedge into the West, with a coastline on the Mediterranean: on the “other side” of both Israel and the Suez Canal from Iran’s regional encroachments on the Red Sea.  Under today’s chaotic conditions, Iran has an “interior” line of communication between her territory and Syria.  She can move men and material in and out of Syria via that LOC for many purposes, without being interdicted.  Eventually, Iran can foresee consolidating her position on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, and using it for purposes that can’t be accomplished without that unfettered access to points west.

Opportunity for Iran

All that said, however, Syria is now uniquely important to Iran’s nuclear aspirations because of the internal turmoil.  There is no meaningful mechanism for enforcing “national” Syrian accountability to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  This is an ideal situation for Iran, and is only enhanced by the fact that the Syrian nuclear program has been on the alternate path to a plutonium bomb, as opposed to Iran’s well-advanced path to a uranium bomb.

Syria-nuke-map-5

Omri Ceren, an analyst with The Israel Project, made the following point in correspondence with me this week:

Between Hezbollah and the IRGC, Syria hasn’t existed as Syria for a long time. Even without the IRGC and Hezbollah physically there – which they are – a Syrian nuclear plant is an Iranian nuclear plant. The Iranians are building redundancy into their program. They’re just putting some of their facilities across what used to be the Syrian border. It’s the equivalent of building a new plant inside northern Iran, except it’s a little farther out in their frontier.

It’s actually better than building a new plant inside Iran.  It’s taking the work already done in Syria under Iran’s wing, and, by keeping it geographically distinct, putting a whole segment of the Iran-supervised effort outside any reasonable prospect of international inspection or accountability.

The State Department made it clear on Monday that the Obama administration has no intention of pursuing this as an issue with Iran.  Under questioning from reporters, Marie Harf was adamant about that (emphasis added):

QUESTION: On the Spiegel story, you said you’re seeking – who are you seeking more – I mean, you know – you should know this area better than anybody –

HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: — certainly better than a German, although highly respected, news magazine

HARF: I would agree with you that we probably have information they don’t.

QUESTION: So who are you seeking information from or are you —

HARF: Seeking internally or from our partners to see what more we can – if we can cooperate this, but again, not sure we can.

QUESTION: Is that – well, you couldn’t corroborate it because of intelligence reasons or because the story’s false and you want to leave it out there?

HARF: We don’t know yet. We just saw the reports and we’re looking into it.

QUESTION: Will you discuss this issue with the Iranians in the upcoming talks?

HARF: No. The upcoming talks are about the Iranian nuclear program.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if they are helping the –

HARF: Yes, but we don’t discuss other issues with them at those talks, as you all know.

QUESTION: But if they are –

HARF: Let’s move on to North Korea and let’s —

QUESTION: But if they are helping the Assad regime to build a nuclear facility –

HARF: I just said we’re not going to. I’m not sure what you don’t understand about that. We’re moving on to North Korea.

Not only will we not address this with Iran: we have only long-term and ineffectual plans to address the turmoil in Syria.  Our plan to train and equip an opposition force capable of fighting either the ISIS jihadi group or the Assad regime hasn’t even started yet.  It is, in any case, a plan with a long lead-time – at least a year – which the Obama administration does not intend to accomplish through its longstanding association with the Free Syrian Army.  (See here as well.)  Just this week, the commander of Special Operations Forces in CENTCOM met with Syrian opposition leaders to begin laying out a strategic vision.

The plan, moreover, doesn’t envision pacifying or unifying Syria, or taking territory from Assad or ISIS.  It’s a wholly defensive plan, which will apparently result only in setting up defended enclaves in a Syria left divided and unsettled.

In other words, nothing we plan to do will make the slightest headway against the very real problem of Syria as an unsupervised storage shed and back-room manufactory, for Iran or for whoever can manage to get hold of its contents.  Some of those contents are still from the Assad regime’s nuclear program.  It’s by no means impossible for ISIS to get hold of them; we don’t know where everything from the old program is.

If they are under the active supervision of Iran today, and are incorporated in a strategic plan of the mullahs’ devising, it is suicidal to be complacent about where they may end up, or how they may be used.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/analysis/j-e-dyer/an-iranian-nuclear-weapons-program-in-what-was-formerly-syria/2015/01/18/

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