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July 29, 2015 / 13 Av, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘nuclear’

‘5 Shades of Israel’ Debate the Issues for Anglo Votes in Jerusalem

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

The top five political parties in Israel vied for the English-speaking vote in Jerusalem on Wednesday in a far more polite debate held at Cinema City in Jerusalem than is usually seen in Hebrew-speaking forums, in keeping with the cultural tenor of the audience.

JewishPress.com editor-in-chief Stephen Leavitt noted at the start of the event that Israel is home to nearly half a million “native English speakers” who have immigrated from countries as diverse at Australia, South Africa, the UK, Canada, the U.S. and other areas where the English language is spoken.

Representatives of the Likud, Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Tnua merger parties addressed the anglo voters on a set of five core issues. Among those that has been raising blood pressure in Israel and abroad is the Iranian nuclear threat and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned trip next week to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C.

Yisrael Beytenu representative Ashley Perry led off the responses by asking, “How can we take on Iran if we cannot successfully take on Hamas and Hezbollah? We can achieve a draw at best,” he said, pointing to the results of the recent operations carried out against terror groups in Gaza and Lebanon.

“We have to first deal with the more imminent threat on our borders,” Perry said. “We have to take the gloves off. We need to return deterrence. The next time a single rocket comes over, we need to respond with such impact that … quiet returns for generations.”

Yesh Atid representative and MK Rabbi Dov Lipman commented, “There are times when leaders speak with bravado, but create tremendous damage to Israel along the way… I see it when I travel abroad. There is a way to go about such things.” Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress, Lipman contended, is “doing tremendous damage.” He insisted the Congress could have — and would have — come up with a two-thirds vote to “override” any deal with Iran that President Barack Obama would have brought before the Congress for approval. Now, he said, “Congress cannot do anything about it.”

Hillik Bar, representing the Herzog-Hatnua parties, said he believes in “smart diplomacy” and that in essence, he agreed with Lipman. “But this time I agree with Netanyahu in that we in Israel do not believe the Iranians when they say they are using their nuclear power for peace. We know better.” The difference, Bar said, was that his party differs with Likud on how to differentiate between “those Arabs who want to live with us and those who don’t — those who want to live here INSTEAD of us. With those, we should speak with them in the language of the IDF; on this we agree with Netanyahu,” he said.

Likud representative and former MK, Professor Benny Begin’s oratorial skills prompted even the moderator to lose track of his own timekeeping — for which he later apologized to the audience.

“What a miracle,” he began quietly. “I should remind you that in the last decade and up to about two years ago, everyone agreed that Prime Minister Netanyahu was exaggerating about the Iranian threat in order to keep the debate about “internal” issues. The P5+1 was claiming there was “no weapons program” there in Iran… everyone was insisting that Netanyahu was making it up.

“There was only one person who carried that banner and he carried it high. It speaks about the far-sighted ability of Netanyahu, and his courage to carry it in the face of major opposition from everyone… These guys are a menace not only to Israel but to the whole world.

US Media Avoids Iran Opposition Group Exposure of Secret Nuclear Program

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

An opposition group in Iran was slated to reveal new information Tuesday morning about the presence of a top secret parallel nuclear program being carried out at a site called Lavizan-3.

But suddenly, after first announcing the upcoming news story and the presence of the blockbuster top secret parallel nuclear development program in Iran – the headlines vanished. The briefing by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) simply did not exist.

Instead, reports vanished about the upcoming news of the secret Iranian nuclear development program being carried on right under the very noses of the American and European negotiators while trying to reach a “good faith” agreement with Tehran.

They were replaced with headlines about “leaked cables” that reportedly showed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s international Mossad intelligence agency “disagreed” about the extent of the Iranian nuclear threat.

Talk about the proverbial red herring.

To his credit, CNN correspondent Nick Robertson in London debunked that myth, reporting that the Mossad clarified there “is no daylight” between the view of the Mossad and the prime minister. Robertson noted that a briefing sheet distributed to journalists about the issue included one point that seemed a bit vague – “item 9” which, he said, “someone has chosen to deliberately undermine the prime minister when he goes to the United States next week.”

While the top secret parallel nuclear development program is humming away, world powers led by the U.S. are hammering out an agreement to allow Iran to continue openly its clandestine activities, aimed at achieving an atomic weapon of mass destruction.

“The U.S. and Iran are shaping the contours of a deal that would initially freeze Tehran’s nuclear program but would allow it to slowly ramp up activities that could be used to make nuclear arms over the last years of the agreement’s duration,” Fox News reported on its website Monday and Tuesday.

The details of the six-power talks with Iran were still not fine-tuned, according to the report, which said restrictions on the uranium enrichment program would be lifted as part of the deal, along with sanctions, as a reward for “good behavior” by Iran.

News about the briefing by the Iranian opposition group, slated to take place at 10 am New York time, was non-existent however — and the original headline vanished as if it did not exist on both CNN and Fox News.

The original announcement remained on Yahoo! News but no follow-up was available, leading to questions of how the story had been squelched.

The nuclear development site itself has been kept completely secret from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and work there reportedly is continuing during negotiations with the P5+1 world leaders, including the United States.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran has previously provided highly reliable intelligence on Iran’s nuclear sites, however — and the U.S. representative office of the NCRI was slated to hold its news conference to reveal further information on the existence of “an active and secret parallel nuclear program in Iran,” the group said.

In the past, NCRI exposed some of the most significant parts of the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program, including information about the Natanz uranium enrichment and Arak heavy water sites in August 2002; Kalay-e Electric centrifuge assembly and testing facility in February 2003; Lashkar-abad Laser enrichment and Lavizan-Shian site in May 2003; Fordow underground enrichment site in December 2005; and Defensive Innovation and Research Organization SPND in July 2011.

It’s still not clear what happened with the briefing — nor is it clear how or why the U.S. news media suddenly ditched the story.

Senior US Sen. Charles Schumer Urges Fellow Democrats to Attend Netanyahu Speech to Congress

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

New York’s senior Senator Charles Schumer called on fellow Democrats to put principles above politics this week and be in their seats March 3 when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu walks to the podium in Congress.

The U.S. has always maintained a “bipartisan policy” on its relationship with Israel, Schumer said during a radio interview in New York.

“Democrats and Republicans have always worked together on it; we ought to keep it that way.”

Vice President Joe Biden’s office announced that he will be “out of the country” when Israel’s leader addresses American lawmakers.

Schumer offered the opinion that House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu “could have been done in a different way.”

As the leader of an ally in the Middle East that is “helping us fight terrorism,” Schumer said, Netanyahu has “every right to come here and speak, but he ought to do it in a bipartisan manner.”

Both of New York’s Democratic senators and all but two of its Democratic representatives will attend the session.

Long-time Congress member Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) is one of the ‘won’t go’s.

“I am certain his motivation comes more from Israel than from his American friends,” Rangel told the New York Daily News — as if the Israeli prime minister should put America’s interests above those of his own nation’s citizens.

“I think that they would have to realize that this is not in the best interests of Israel, that he does this for his campaign,” he added. The remark leads one to wonder why a New York Congress member would suddenly make a reference to an Israeli national election when the address – and the topic – was arranged months earlier.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) also plans to be absent for the session, according to the report. Congress member Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) did not respond to a query by the Daily News about her plans; Rep. Hakeem Jeffries told the paper he is “consulting” with his constituents in Brooklyn before deciding. All other New York City Democrats plan to attend, the paper reported. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) commented that skipping the speech would be a political move. “I am not choosing to participate in those politics,” she said.

“I hope that things can be worked out to salve some of the legitimate wounds that people feel,” Schumer said. “I will go to the speech out of my respect and love for the State of Israel.”

Meanwhile, Iran continues to behave in the manner predicted by Israel, which deeply concerns its leadership over the likelihood Tehran will reach a nuclear threshold.

Iran is still not cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), according to a confidential report obtained by Reuters. The agency remains unable to clarify outstanding measures of explosives tests and other activity that could be used to create nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Data in both areas were to have been provided to the IAEA by August 2014.

But this is not new behavior; Tehran long ago mastered the technique of buying time for more nuclear development by stringing along Western leaders with promises of “new talks” and “negotiations” in return for delays on sanctions. The current P5+1 negotiations, slated to end in a “new agreement” by March 24, are just more of the same.

It is precisely the danger inherent in the repeated delays – and time granted to Iran that allows it to progress in its nuclear activities – that has finally prompted Netanyahu to turn to Congress directly.

Indyk, Ross Suggest US-Israel ‘Nuclear Guarantee’ Over Iran

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Former US envoy the Middle East Martin Indyk and US diplomat Dennis Ross proposed a “nuclear guarantee for Israel” on Tuesday at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv.

Apparently it has not occurred to either former diplomat that one cannot “guarantee” the behavior of a rogue Islamic Republic.

Indyk suggested a joint Israel-U.S. Nuclear defense agreement that he called a “treaty arrangement” to address Israel’s concern that Iran is about to cross a nuclear threshold.

 The plan he suggested was similar to that proposed in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton at Camp David.

Intended as a way to ensure Israel’s safety if Iran puts the Jewish State in the cross hairs, Indyk said, “It was approved then, and the U.S. president said if there is a deal, we’ll do this.”

Ross, who serves as counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added that spot inspections of Iranian facilities must be implemented along with stricter protocols.

“You have to ensure that you can verify that a program that has a thousand or two centrifuges is dramatically less than what is required if you have tens of thousands and you’d have to come up with an approach that allows you a high level of confidence that you can cover that,” he said. “There should be use of force worked out with the Hill that says, ‘if we catch them in the following kind of violation, the implication is we will take out those facilities.’

 “That would deter the Iranians, that would go a long way toward addressing one of the basic Israeli concerns,” Ross said.

 Retired Israeli Brig.-Gen. Yosef Kuperwasser injected a breath of reality into the discussion, however: he said flatly that Israel is clear that Iran cannot be trusted on compliance. Period.

“They would not believe [the U.S.] really mean business and it would mean that they would continue to move forward – cautiously, but continuously,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro did what he could to pour oil on the troubled waters between his country’s administration and Israel over the Iranian nuclear threat. “The United States is determined to prevent [a nuclear Iran] and we will prevent it,” Shapiro vowed. “Our cooperation and consultations with Israel on this shared goal will continue, even at moments when we may disagree with one or another aspect of the approach.”

Netanyahu Points Out, ‘If the Deal is Good, Why Hide It?’

Monday, February 16th, 2015

If the deal with Iran is so good, why hide it?

That’s the latest point driven home by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as he continues to warn American legislators and world leaders against signing a deal being discussed with Iran over nuclear development activity.

The U.S. is being far more cautious in its updates to Israel on the progress of the talks taking place over the deal, apparently in response to Netanyahu’s determination to move forward with an invitation to address Congress on the issue on March 3.

The “P5+1 talks with Tehran” are scheduled to conclude – so far, apparently with an agreement in place – on March 24. Israel’s national elections will have already been held a few days earlier, on March 17.

Netanyahu contended Sunday in comments at the annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, held in Jerusalem, that Israel has a right to know the details of the agreement being discussed – since the Jewish State is the nation that will be most threatened by a nuclear Iran.

“If there is someone who thinks it is a good deal, why is there a need to hide it?” Netanyahu pointed out. The U.S. has gone mum on details of “sensitive information about the Iran talks,” according to a report by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, keeping Israel out of the loop out of concern that Netanyahu’s office had leaked “sensitive details” of the U.S. position.

Among the information no longer being share are details such as the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges that Tehran will be allowed to keep running – a delicate point that could mean the difference between life and death for the Jewish State.

Congressional Bill Introduced: Europe Must Reject Anti-Israel BDS in Free Trade Deal

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

If Europe wants to enjoy the benefits of what could be the largest free trade deal in history, the leaders of its member nations will have to pay a price: they must agree to reject the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, say two U.S. Representatives – one from each side of the political aisle.

The Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act was formally submitted Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 10) on Capitol Hill under bipartisan sponsorship, which is expected to smooth the way for rapid passage.

But there’s a catch. The legislation will “leverage ongoing trade negotiations to discourage prospective U.S. trade partners from engaging in economic discrimination against Israel, said Representatives Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Peter Roskam (R-IL), who co-sponsored the bill.

Additional co-sponsors are to be recruited to the measure after its introduction to the floor. The two lawmakers said they are optimistic the bill will pass through the House of Representatives.

It’s a great deal. It is estimated the measure could add as much as 0.5 percent to the European Union’s annual economic output. The flip side of it, however, involves how the bill impacts the ongoing free trade negotiations between the U.S. and the EU. Foreign companies traded on U.S. stock exchanges will have to disclose links to BDS activities, and whether they have faced any pressure for avoiding participation in any boycotts.

“The bill … establishes a clear U.S. policy of opposing BDS as detrimental to global trade and regional peace and stability,” the two lawmakers wrote in their introduction to the legislation. They also noted that the measure was created in response to a growing trend among countries “primarily in Europe, to isolate and delegitimize Israel through BDS for political purposes.”

“Today, an alarming number of countries within the European Union and beyond have embraced BDS as a form of economic warfare aimed to cripple Israel’s economy and demonize its very existence. These attacks not only threaten Israel, but commercial relations across the globe,” Roskam told reporters.

“The US-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act will ensure that American free trade partners never engage in this harmful and illegitimate political protest against Israel, while also protecting US companies from foreign lawsuits targeting their associations with Israel.”

Vargas likewise noted, “BDS is a harmful political tactic which seeks to undermine and diminish Israel’s economic strength. We need to reassure our commitment to our ally in the region by clearly defining US policy to oppose this practice and dissuade other nations from adopting BDS policies toward Israel.”

The measure also unequivocally underlines the “strategic importance of trade and commercial relations to the pursuit of sustainable peace and regional stability,” making it clear that boycotts break down the potential for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the lawmakers said.

Perhaps that bit of wisdom should be directed towards the PA headquarters at its capital in Ramallah: Its latest anti-Israel economic boycott has just been launched, punishing local merchants far more than Israeli manufacturers. Worse, the boycott reinforces for Israelis the utter futility of attempting to secure any lasting agreement with anyone who claims to lead the Palestinian Authority.

Arab governments in the Middle East come and go, and so do those who lead the Arab residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The PA commitments in particular – on paper or otherwise – can be likened to a ritual courtesy one carries out in ceremonial garb. They mean everything for the moment, but are instantly put aside when “reality” steps back into the scene. In that moment, all is forgotten and anything goes, as happened with the obligations of the internationally recognized Oslo Accords.

A bill such as the Roskam-Vargas measure is invaluable, coming at a time when a European groundswell of anti-Semitism appears to be growing into a tsunami and the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be floundering in ways never seen before. The entire Middle East is in disarray, and Israel may be facing an existential threat from Iran as it gallops towards a nuclear military threshold. It is precisely now, as Iran strengthens its terrorist guerrilla proxies to the north and south of Israel’s borders, that the Jewish State most needs the support of its friends in the international community.

How fortunate that the lawmakers in Congress have chosen this moment to reaffirm — and concretely demonstrate — America’s commitment to Israel, and to underscore the strong relationship both nations share.

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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